CONTENT WARNING: Homophobia, Queer*phobia
This year’s UniLodge Musical was Monty Python’s Spamalot. Running from October 10 to 13 , Spamalot was the second musical staged by UniLodge@ANU following the 2018 production of 9 to 5. Spamalot is a surrealist comedy, which often humorously breaks the fourth wall. The plot revolves around King Arthur and his noble quest to retrieve the Holy Grail with his four knights Sir Lancelot, Sir Robin, Sir Bedevere and Sir Galahad. The journey takes them through ‘expensive’ forests, to a flashy Vegas-style Camelot, French castles, and across the globe. With a cast of wacky characters and a ridiculous plot, it’s often funny. It’s when it isn’t funny that the production has serious problems.
As a disclaimer, I would like to congratulate everyone involved in the production. I had a role in UniLodge’s 2018 musical 9 to 5, and I know how stressful and demanding the entire process is. As an audience member, it was great to see so many of my friends up on stage performing their hearts out. However, in this review, I want to focus on the context of Spamalot and why it was a problematic choice for the 2019 UniLodge musical.
Monty Python’s Spamalot is a 2005 musical adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 2019 is a different time from 2005, and 2005 was a very different time from 1975. When the film was initially released, gay rights were still a very new concept to the mainstream media. It was not uncommon for the media to discredit these efforts made by the LGBTQ+ community. This is the case in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The only gay character is Herbert, who is depicted as a sickly, feminine man and is referred to as a ‘creep’. He is also used as the punchline to a joke. Sir Lancelot, described as “fearless to a bloody fault”, slaughters his way through the Swamp Castle in the hope of finding a princess at the top of the Tall Tower. The joke is that the princess is actually Herbert.
This is slightly adapted in the 2005 musical. Lancelot makes his way up the tower and feels an inexplicable sympathy for Prince Herbert, defending him against his aggressive father. An argument culminates in Herbert’s father calling Lancelot gay, which triggers ‘His Name Is Lancelot’, a campy song which conforms to stereotypical gay archetypes. Lancelot suddenly realises that he is ‘gaYMCA’ after having been a blood-thirsty brute for the entire play.
The issue in both situations is that gay people are the butt of the joke.
In the 1975 film, Herbert is a ‘creep’. His face is sagging, he has a high-pitched voice and is extremely feminine. He is obviously depicted in a negative manner and is very clearly gay. Upon discovering that Herbert is gay, Lancelot makes every effort to flee the scene. In the 2005 musical, Lancelot’s character turns from ‘homicidally brave’ into ‘obviously gay’. His realisation that he is gay is played as a joke. The contrast between the murderous Lancelot and the ‘gaYMCA’ Lancelot generates laughter. Herbert remains the same frail, pathetic character.
Situating gay people as the butt of these jokes perpetuates harmful public perceptions of queer* people. These jokes invite audience members to make the same remarks, often without regard to whom they are addressing. Directly after his coming out scene, Lancelot is mockingly referred to as a ‘fairy’, an old slur for gay men. Such ridicule is most prominent at the end of the musical. The relationship between Lancelot and Herbert is depicted as a joke, and so is their wedding. As they walk down the aisle together, the audience laugh as they lovingly embrace each other. As someone who hopes to walk my husband down the aisle, I felt embarrassed and attacked.
Sitting in the front row surrounded by an audience laughing at a scene that should have been celebrated, I was overcome by strong emotions. I felt embarrassed, as I experienced a shame about being gay that I hadn’t felt since I was in the closet. I felt threatened, as I saw something so critical to who I am being mocked on stage. I felt sadness, as I also became the butt of a joke. Mostly, I felt confusion. I have been a proud Lodge Viper since 2018. I poured a lot into the community at Lodge. I contributed to the Residents’ Committee as a social representative, I was a senior resident and volunteered at every event I could. And yet, here I was at the end of the year being forced to witness dated, harmful gay stereotypes.
And now, I feel disappointed. The UniLodge Musical is chosen by the Residential Life Manager, a role similar to a Head of Hall. Residents have no input on how it is chosen, but are expected to direct, act in and organise the production. I am disappointed that the Residential Life Manager thought that an obviously harmful play was okay to put on. I am disappointed that next year, he will be promoted to the Brisbane Head Office. Most of all, I am disappointed that there will likely be no reprimand or apology. Instead, Spamalot will be a footnote in history for most people. But for queer* people like me, the memory will remain as one of the many times that we’ve been the butt of some sad, archaic joke. I wonder how many times this will occur. I wonder how often we will have to write about it before authority figures consider their actions before they harm the people they supposedly care for.