I meant to write about this right away but I’ve been busy. Last week, I got to see Hawksley Workman in The God That Comes, part of Vancouver’s PuSh Festival. It took place at Performance Works on Granville Island. When I bought the (very reasonable) tickets all I knew was that I liked Hawksley Workman’s music. I have two of his albums (For Him and the Girls, Between the Beautifuls). But I didn’t know if the piece at the festival was music, or a play or both. And in a way, it was indeed both, a work in progress.
I was surprised to see how intimate the performance space was, set up like a lounge or cabaret. The venue also doubled as Club PuSh where you could hang after, drink and dance to DJ tunes. The show was introduced by a drag queen, who I believe called herself the Queen of East Van. She was done up with a wild black mop of hair and a slinky, leopard print shiny, long gown. As the show began I knew exactly why a drag queen opened this show and why she was dressed as she was.
Workman’s show is described as:
It tells the story of a king whose subjects revolt against his oppressive rule to worship the Greco-Roman god of wine Bacchus (aka Dionysus) in a hedonistic spiritual revolution. This concept album for the stage, created with 2b Theatre Company’s Christian Barry is a work-in-progress that fuses the chaotic revelry of a rock concert with the intimacy of theatrical storytelling.
Hawksley Workman began by coming out on a stage festooned drums, a keyboard, various stringed and other instruments and three sytrofoam wig heads on stands. One wore an ash-blonde flip-style wig, one a red boa, and one a military hat. There was also a white, headless mannequin in a red strapless dress. Hawksley was wearing a jacket with military style in its lines.
He first read a story, with a glass of wine in hand, about a king who is suspicious of his people frolicking in the hills with a new god. Even his mother is going, so he dresses up as a woman and, unrecognized, is torn apart. This is the short version of The Bacchae, an ancient Greek play by Eurpides, about the mythological King Pentheus who meets the new god Dionysus and his followers, the women who become maenads.
Maenads were to be feared. These followers of Dionysus embraced his divine madness and were rumored to tear apart animals and mortals in their ecstatic, wine-induced frenzy. While there is no evidence of the dismembering of humans or animals ever happening the maenadic and Dionysian rituals did indeed take place.
Workman’s one-man show included songs that covered the king’s feelings, his military might, his curiosity and fear, his demise. It also covers the ecstasy of Dionysus and how Dionysus was viewed. Unlike the twelve Olympian gods or the Titans before them, Dionysus was originally a foreign god, chthonic and believed to have come from another culture. He was depicted with ivy and grapes wound in his black hair, often wearing women’s dress, which, in ancient Greece, meant a different cut of chiton to the men’s chiton, and effeminate of feature. He was the androgyne that women followed. For a culture that constrained women, this appealed to their wild side and they were allowed to indulge it during his festival. Dionysus’ myth includes being torn apart himself by the Titans and ingested and reborn. In fact, he is one of a long string of dying and reborn gods and precedes Jesus. Now it begins to make sense why the drag queen was perfect for introducing the show.
Hawksley Workman’s songs ranged from impassioned and tragic to hysterically funny as when he sang Ukelele Boy, about Dionysus. For another piece he picks up the top half of the dressed torso and then plays a harmonica positioned beneath the dress so that it looks very sexual to the audience who see’s his head at the level of the genitals. When Pentheus discovers the maenadic orgy, Workman takes a well-known line “my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord” and tosses it on its side, giving more meanings to what type of coming is happening.
For the ecstatic ritual he sings, “Won’t your ride with me…our feet pound the earth with pleasure so deep…won’t your ride with me.” This lead into Workman stomping out a staccato rhythm with his feet and two poles in his hands. Very deep, very visceral. After the maenads realize they have torn apart the king, Hawksley’s lines include “Can you believe that his blood came out red?” and “salt in his tears.” Note that I was mesmerized and writing notes in the dark so these lines could be off a bit.
Hawksley Workman used the heads as props, sometimes wearing the boa or the hat, sometimes talking to the head. Under his modern vest he wore a purple shirt and one of his instruments had a leopard skin patterned strap. All of these small details, including that glass of wine, were significant as they are symbols of Dionysus; red, purple, leopards (Dionysus is almost always shown with a leopard skin across his shoulder), wine.
The performance was wacky, invigorating, funny, sad, and extremely original. I’ve liked Workman’s music before because of the originality of the tunes and the lyrics. The God That Comes blended this well, and showed his creative genius. He definitely researched Dionysus and the Maenads and embraced them to write such a powerful show. This touched me on several levels. I intimately know the tale of Dionysus and the maenads. I do hope this comes out as an album, but I wished I could have seen the show again. I’ve already told several friends to watch for Workman if he’s come to their city. He’s worth seeing and I very much appreciated being close enough to feel part of the show. I raise ten glasses of wine to Hawksley Workman. And I can say that I may have been the only person sitting there that night who has been a maenad. Io Dionysus.