Underbelly Festival: The Art of Drag

As the houselights of the Underbelly Festival tent dimmed and the audience chatter fell to a hush, a tall figure in a structured dress appeared on stage, dramatically silhouetted against the bright lights. As the figure started to strut towards us, the audience exploded into applause and cheers and the person sitting next to me in the audience whispered to me, excitedly: “that’s Michael!”, like they knew him personally and were extraordinarily proud.

And with good reason! The figure emerged and was identified as Michael Twaits, MC of the evening and founder of the drag course The Art of Drag, whose graduates would be performing. From the get-go, Twaits’ stage presence was utterly magnetic, as he commanded the stage with high-heeled precision. Dressed in a long silver wig and classy cocktail dress, he was at the same time fantastically glamorous and charmingly down-to-earth. As the stage manager frantically set props on the stage for the next acts, Twaits explained to us where the boundaries of drag can be pushed (anywhere), who can perform drag (anyone), and where he once found a sequin after a night out (!!).

But, however mesmerising Michael Twaits’ introductions for each act were, the graduates of the Art of Drag course presented equally captivating acts that were funny, salacious and, at times, thought-provoking. One of the most memorable performances was that of Bae Sheram, who began her act wearing a modest black dress and niqab, while somberly holding up a newspaper with Islamophobic slurs scribbled on it. Then, Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ hit the sound system and the performer flung off her headscarf to reveal a batman cowl and bat wings.

Equally surprising was the act of a drag queen called FRUIT, whose deliciously raunchy rendition of Rupert Holmes ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’ had everyone in the audience singing along: “I like penis colada and getting drunk on the train”. Meanwhile, the performer mixed the eponymous cocktail in a cocktail shaker in their pelvic harness. The cocktail was then passed around to audience members, one of whom declared in a surprised tone: “it really does taste like a piña colada!”

The strong finale of the night was a ballad performed by Michael Twaits and an enthusiastic group of backup singers. Like all good drag performances, this act started with a costume-change, and ended with thunderous applause.

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