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Beauty and the Beast: true love in the raw

Festivals

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Members of a New York audience spontaneously got to their feet and hugged at the end of a performance of the adult fairytale Beauty and the Beast.

Tears aren’t unusual, either. But only one man has ever walked out mid-show.

“Perhaps he just had a sore knee or something,” muses “Beast” Mat Fraser.

Beauty and the Beast, which will have its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Festival next month, features puppetry, burlesque and shadow play meshed with the true love story of UK disabled actor, artist and musician Fraser and American burlesque star Julie Atlas Muz.

It has full nudity, explicit sex scenes, is recommended for audiences aged 18 plus and comes with program advice to bring your lover (not your mother).

But Fraser – described in media notes as having “small but perfectly deformed arms” as a result of Thalidomide-induced phocomelia – insists that the risqué elements shouldn’t deter potential audiences.

“Journalists often pick up on the salaciousness and the nudity and I think people get the impression that it’s hard work to see what we do, but if they don’t end up smiling with a feeling of love, like it’s the best time [they’ve had] at the theatre, then I will give them their money back.

“You can bring your granny … they’ve seen it all before and they’re often the best audiences.”

When Fraser and Muz met some years ago while working on a cabaret, the attraction was instant.

Eager to spend time together, they collaborated on a more traditional Beauty and the Beast story, without the real-life anecdotes. The modern retelling of the fairytale came later, after they consulted with Phelim McDermott, co-founder of the Improbable theatre company in the UK and director of productions such as Shockheaded Peter.

“He said, ‘I do want to do this, but I want to make it a story about you two as well as Beauty and the Beast and I want to interweave it’,” Fraser recalls.

“We were so excited by the prospect of that. We jumped at it.”

Fraser, whose other career as a drummer saw him performing with Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games, has previously explored the relationship between disability and entertainment with work such as the documentary Born Freak and the film Unarmed But Dangerous. Yet while some writers have praised Beauty and the Beast for confronting conventional notions regarding disability, normality and sexuality, he says that was never a deliberate intention.

“Because I’m disabled and we’re both very comfortable with nudity, for some people it can seem full-on – but not to us.

“We’re not trying to challenge or provoke but our normality does do that to some old-fashioned notions of women, disability and sexuality.”

Many of the scenes in Beauty and the Beast are presented in a “very art-theatre way”, Fraser says. At one point, the puppeteers are his arms; napkins become rabbits; cutlery moves through the air; there’s a dinner scene where the suggestiveness of the shapes of the food come to the fore.

The nudity is gradual; part of the unfolding story.

“Slowly but surely we end up naked, because standing on stage just being comfortable in your own skin is about as honest and raw as you can get. But if you asked what we were most vulnerable about, I would say the monologues.”

While stressing that it’s not one of those “overly emotional American pieces” or an “indulgent reality-TV type show”, Fraser says most people seem genuinely moved by the work. He believes it is the raw honesty of the story, the unabashed way he and Muz present themselves and their love, which resonates.

So does the spontaneous audience hugging thing happen often?

“Not in Britain, but that’s because they’re reluctant to touch each other!

“People generally end up feeling so full of emotion that tears come out – but they’re happy tears. Tears of overwhelming joy and love – it leaves you feeling in a heightened state of loving awareness.

“Words fail me sometimes about how intense people find it.”

Beauty and the Beast Trailer from Improbable on Vimeo.

Beauty and the Beast will be performed at the Dunstan Playhouse from March 10-15 as part of the 2015 Adelaide Festival.

More Adelaide Festival stories:

Gillard and Dessaix join Writers’ Week line-up

Adelaide Festival unveils 2015 program

Black Diggers headed for Adelaide Festival

Blinc: Artist makes the microscopic monumental

Five Adelaide Writers’ Week books to read

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