Review: Sex Magick, directed by Declan Greene.
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl and follows her to India. Boy has a transformative tantric sexual experience and realises he might like boys too? Boy, girl and boy live happily ever after.
At its heart, Sex Magick, a new play written by Nicholas Brown, is about subverting expectations, queering desire and digging beneath the surface, taking the audience on a meandering, ultimately thrilling ride filled with laughter, music, sex and dance.
The play opens in a throbbing red-light filled locker room as Ard Panicker (Raj Labade) is thrust into an awkward conversation with his mother, Cindy (Blazey Best), which reveals as much as it conceals.
Cindy loves crucifixes and Christmas. Heading to her wedding rehearsal, she seems surprised to see Ard.
The tension between mother and son makes more sense when we later learn Cindy paid Ard’s father Keeran (Veshnu Narayanasamy) to return to India because he wasn’t raising one of their sons to the standard of masculinity Cindy expected.
Any guesses whether that son was Ard or his rugby-playing sibling Kollam?
Humour in discomfort
We are catapulted to “the real India, authentic to its core”. Liraz (Catherine Văn-Davies) has brought an unwitting Ard with her to a Tantric sex course.
The guru, Manmatha (Stephen Madsen), is white but India is in his “spiritual DNA” as his great-great-grandfather worked for the East India Company.
Sex Magick insightfully mocks western fascination with and fetishisation of Indian culture.
Ard and Liraz explore their sexuality with Manmatha as their guide.
Halfway through what Ard thinks is a loving and intimate massage performed by Liraz, she is swapped by Manmatha. When Ard discovers this he angrily rushes out of the room. Manmatha simply claims “there’s something not right about that man. I can’t put a finger in it.”
Sex Magick is good at pushing boundaries and finding the humour in discomfort.
Liraz’s path to sexual liberation is fraught with several roadblocks. At one point she has trouble remembering the complete queer alphabet. In spite of it, she is adamant that she is an L.
Is she though?
Through an equally sensitive and funny performance, Liraz urges each of us to reconsider the boxes we put ourselves in and untangle love and sex – or, as her ex-boyfriend TJ tells her, don’t be so “rigid, learn to bend”.
A thread that weaves through Ard and Liraz’s sexual awakening is the sexual and gender fluidity in Indian culture.
The subcontinent had a more nuanced understanding of gender and sex before British colonisation.
Sex Magick dips its toes into some of this complexity. Do two men holding hands have to be romantically intimate partners, or can this be a sign of camaraderie? Can a man paint his face, wear feminine clothing and still identify as a man, a husband and a father?
Ard’s full given name is Ardhanarishvara, for the deity, half woman and half man symbolising the inseparability of the feminine and masculine. This god is brought up several times to reinforce the duality present in Hinduism, and the mesh of feminine and masculine is portrayed beautifully through the traditional Kathakali dance.
Kathakali dances often borrow from Hindu mythology and Indian epics, but Sex Magick insists on creating stories that keep up with the changing times. “Why tell the same old god and goddess stories when you can create something new?” Asks young Keeran (Labade).
In blending the old with the new, Sex Magick carefully walks the line between respect of tradition and personal expression.
A wild ride
The show is most at home when talking about the Australian context. The witch coven “Body Somatic” in Marrickville leads to unending glee. The audience bursts into laughter at the mention of the local deity “Whit-nayyy” (that’s Whitney Houston for the uninitiated).
The play is peppered with well acted and skilfully contrived sex scenes performed with ease and confidence by the brilliant cast. Much of the magic is courtesy of a rapturous lighting design (Kelsey Lee). Smoke often makes the room feel like an expansive fantastical wonderland.
Sex Magick is a funny, chaotic and wild ride that urges us to consider desire as not a personal and individual choice but a political one shaped by structural factors beyond our control.
This gender-bending, time-travelling play invites you to detangle love and sex, examine your biases, question your tastes and unpack your cultural baggage – with wild peacocks.
Sex Magick is at Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, until March 25.