Theatre review: Dirt

A queer thriller set in Moscow where nothing is what it seems.

What does it mean to show solidarity with someone in the age of the internet, where authenticity is everything? Arts professionals are more vulnerable than most to torrents of social media criticism, because in the arts, we are what we make, and we are how it is received. It is to the credit of a play like Dirt that as much as it’s committed to its subject, it’s also committed to asking itself if it has the right to its subject. And this is the kind of self-reflexivity that, for better or for worse, is a necessary positioning.

In this case, the presumption at the heart of Dirt is whether two Australian young people, one an ABC TV star, and one an actor about to head to New York for training, are able to fairly pretend to be an Australian journalist and a gay Russian tour guide, the latter with a sister missing in Chechnya. Both actors inhabit their roles thoroughly and realistically. Wil King does seem like a journalist and Patrick Livesey’s Russian accent is so convincing that until we meet I’m half-convinced they are the real thing. 

The play is tightly written by Angus Cameron, and as a two-hander it proceeds tautly from beat to beat, preceding with reversals that have the grace of ballet dancer’s lifts, and leave the audience constantly questioning themselves. The play seems to be first a travelogue, then a romance, then finally an espionage drama, and each time it flips the script there’s a dizziness to the new heights the cast are scaling. The dialogue is very funny: the play is named after the Livesey character’s assertion that Russia exports its dirt, which turns out to be a made up claim to skewer hapless tour guests. 

The pathos of the play comes from a narrative of the gay genocide in Chechnya. My heart breaks for the young woman, the tour guide’s sister, who when threatened with ‘corrective’ rape disappears. It’s a story detailed in the David France documentary Welcome To Chechnya and its story that stays with the viewer after the plot leaves it behind. 

Ultimately, Dirt is a drama that warns against the myth of the perfect victim. As much as Wil King’s journalist character is enchanted both by Russia and his Russian tour guide, played by Livesey, this is a culture where masculinity reigns with disturbing consequences, where GHB is a party drug as well as a date rape drug, where joking about pain is more likely than talking about it, and where nobody is quite what they seem.

Read: Theatre review: Security

Given that the production has raised more than $3000 for the Moscow Community Centre for LGBTQI Initiatives and Insight Ukraine, it seems to suggest there is value in presuming an identity other than your own. But it reminds us that a world willing to police identity is not without risk and we are lucky when the risk is only to an invented identity. 

DIrt by Angus Cameron
Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne
Director: Bronwen Coleman
Sound Design: MzRizk
Lighting Design: Matt Ralph
Dramaturgy: Alice Qin
Cast: Wil King and Patrick Livesey

Tickets: $25-$35

Dirt will be performed until 6 June 2022.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin