“On a balmy February night in 1971, a small group of about 50 gay men and lesbians gathered in a church hall in Balmain. They met to establish a group called the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP). It was the first ever open public meeting of homosexuals held in Australia.”
– The 78ers, ‘What was happening in Australia at the time?’
CAMP, written by Elis Jamieson Brown and produced and directed by Kate Gaul, chronicles the formation of this group, and the activism that led to the first Australian Mardi Gras in 1978.
Playing at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre for WorldPride, the play is an ensemble piece that covers the CAMP organisation over decades, with a particular focus on CAMP co-presidents Dave (Adriano Cappelletta) and Krissy (Jane Phegan), and new members Jo (Tamara Natt) and Tracy (Lou McInnes).
The play functions best as an ensemble piece looking broadly at the gay rights movement in Australia throughout the 1970s. Structurally, it’s a pretty conventional story, simply and powerfully told, although there’s one time jump that I’m not entirely sure worked. I was compelled by the big picture— the group protests that led to law reform over the decade— and less interested in the personal drama of the love triangle between Jo, Tracy and Krissy.
As an overall picture of Australia’s gay rights movement, I found it very moving. I loved the way movement director Emily Ayoub choreographed the gay rights protests using slow motion and tableaux to illustrate the passion of the participants and the violence of the police.
It’s obviously difficult for a play of this scale to cover every individual issue in the gay rights movement in depth, but I was disappointed in the depiction of conversion therapy, which felt out of step with the naturalistic tone of the rest of the piece. A melodramatic performance from Anni Finsterer as an evil doctor made the hospital scenes feel like a pulpy horror film, which was a jarring tone-shift. The situation itself— the medical trauma these individuals faced— is horrific enough, but playing up the performances served to take away the seriousness of the situation.
As a young person in my twenties, many of my peers see Mardi Gras as another excuse to party. It was powerful to be reminded of Mardi Gras’ origin as a protest, particularly considering I saw the matinee show on the day of Mardi Gras. As a piece of theatre, CAMP isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it is an important story that everyone should watch to learn about this crucial piece of Australia’s history.