The last time I interviewed Patrick Graham was some years ago. He’d just directed an extraordinarily funny and clever adaptation of “The Comedy of Errors” for an outdoor Summer Shakespeare season.
“It’s a pretty broad, knockabout farce that I knew would appeal to an audience that wasn’t necessarily Shakespearean scholars,” he told me at the time. “I knew I could do something with it that made it accessible to a modern audience. Also, it’s not a play that’s done very frequently, and I like to play with old texts a bit. I wanted to choose a text that wasn’t very familiar, so people didn’t have certain expectations.”
It’s safe to say no-one could have expected this. Graham’s “Comedy of Errors” was Shakespeare by way of Kath & Kim and Fred Dagg, with doses of “Little Britain” grotesquery and “Monty Python” surrealism. “It has very absurdist, silly characters,” he said. “It stems from an Italian comic background which I taught all the actors – Commedia Dell’arte. It’s a specific style of comedy that plays on the grotesqueries of life.”
At the time of that play, he’d recently graduated from Auckland University’s Creative and Performing Arts school with a first class honours masters degree. In subsequent years, he’s gone on to write and direct his own plays, often gay-themed, which have divided audiences.
Those plays have also featured life’s grostequeries, such as “White Trash Omnibus”, in which he played an unsympathetic, lumbering drunk within “a bleak plot full of sex, drugs, toilet scenes, violence and incestuous liaisons.” (GayNZ.com)
I saw the play when it first came out, and left not knowing what to think. The GayNZ.com quote above was an accurate summation of the storyline, and of course we’re not supposed to laugh at such things. We’re supposed to turn away.
At the time, I had yet to be introduced to the work of John Waters, and that quote could equally apply to the content of his early films, which still today evoke a ***WTF*** from the uninitiated.
I wasn’t familiar with Patrick’s drag alter-ego, Patty Haag, until I saw her featured in Jocelen Janon’s photo exhibition and book “Alter Ego”. Patrick says he was surprised to be asked to take part.
“I’m not used to people wanting to photograph my drag character because she’s quite ugly,” he says.
When I saw Patty pictured alongside the sensitive, thoughtful and passionate restraint in the real-life portrait of Patrick, John Waters sprung immediately to mind.
“That was achieved directly from that tradition of drag, she’s not the pretty drag queen that lip-syncs on the stage at [Auckland gay nightclub] Family, she’s definitely from Divine,” he says.
“I did a lot of work early on in my career exploring grotesque theatre and clowning, so there’s a lot of that in Patty. To begin with, she was a political exploration of what drag was, so I used to have la beard or hairy legs. There was definitely some part of me that was masculine that I would flaunt.
“I’d colour my blue and have a massive bright blue wig and things like that, with a mixture of male and female clothing.”
Patty would appear in a number of settings. She appeared in Auckland’s gay pride parade, Hero. She’d be asked to do private parties and theatre openings, because she was so avant-garde.
“I used to pull meat off people’s bodies and pretend it was gore. I’d exaggerate my weight, sticking my stomach out so I looked a bit pregnant.”
The political has given way over the years to the sad clown figure. “She’s like a grumpy old cleaning lady now. The sort that comes on stage after the performer and has to pick up the discarded costumes, and doesn’t really want to be there or touch anything because she thinks there’s germs on it.”
These days, Patty is more of a genuine alter-ego that he feels more detached from. As he’s gotten older, he feels he’s gotten less like her.
“I used to be quite a lot like Patty in my everyday life, but now I’m quieter, my clothing is not as loud. Patty is the big explosion of colour and loudness and rudeness.”
Having developed the chaotic character from a desire not to conform to gender expectations, the alter-ego of Patty gave Patrick free rein to go over-the-top without feeling any personal embarrassment afterwards.
“I don’t associate it with Patrick,” he says. “There’s pictures of me onstage losing my briefs and looking horrendously trashy. If I had a part of me going ‘oh my God, I can’t believe you’re doing that’ then it wouldn’t work.”