Back to Top

A Theatrical Endurance Test Or An Exhilarating Experience?

 Tuesday, 11th October, 2016

Industry insight from theatre critic Mark Shenton

Right now London theatregoers are being invited to enjoy nearly six hours of back-to-back Harry Potter (with a dinner break in-between the two parts, and an interval to each one, too); and we recently saw three Chekhov plays in a single day at the National, too, notching up nearly nine hours in the theatre, excluding breaks.

But I've just witnessed – or rather participated in – an even more extreme sort of durational event: a one-person show by New York performance artist and activist Taylor Mac called A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that comprises seven three-hour shows. And for one day and night only, on October 8-9, all seven shows were performed in one long stretch, starting at 12noon on the Saturday and ending at 12noon the Sunday, without a single break.

And I just loved it. This is life-transforming art about the changes we can make to our lives and those of others. And it’s a living example of it, as it charts the history of America and its music from 1776 to the present day, through the unique and challenging prism of a 43-year-old gay male protagonist and provocateur called Taylor Mac.

I've seen many, many drag acts over the years, but this is something else entirely: a provocative and startling case of someone conscripting their outsider status to delve deep inside the historical and contemporary culture to make connections with us all, as well as providing a rallying cry for effecting change.

During the course of the 24 hours, we hear some 246 songs, from Shenandoah to Beautiful Dreamer and Irving Berlin's All Alone, Danny Boy, The Trolley Song, Singin' in the Rain, Carousel's Soliloquy, Secret Love, Nina Simone's Please don't let me be misunderstood, Gloria, Born to Run and Purple Rain, to name just a few.

But this is much more than a concert; the whole show is full of context, too, as Taylor Mac sets up reverberating echoes of where we've come from, and are going to, as a community. Some of this – like his own dread fear of AIDS as the crisis first took hold – is deeply personal; but a lot more is utterly liberating, too, as celebrates, for instance, the phenomenon of anonymous gay sex.

Meanwhile, he builds the entire 600-strong audience into a community of its own, challenging us with playful activities like re-enactments of the American Civil War (we use ping-pong balls instead of bullets) but always scoring more serious points. 

"You don't have to settle for what you're given," we are reminded at one point. But I was more than happy to settle for 24 hours in Taylor Mac's company. I'm convinced this is the next queer superstar: like a cross between Bette Midler and Prince, with as much quirky individuality and power as either.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the original author and not necessarily those of The Hospital Club. For rolling theatre news and reviews, follow Mark Shenton's Twitter feed @ShentonStage