A chat show is a difficult act to stage, more so when you take into account that the Melbourne Writer's Festival's Friday Night Live involves a more unorthodox topic: literature. Nonetheless, charismatic host Libbi Gorr and her panel of eclectic guests pull of the feat admirably. Housed in Federation Square's classy BMW Edge, the state of the art theatre sets the scene for simple, contemporary conversation.
The inclusion of an on-stage band is an interesting one for a program based on words and paper, not voices and instruments. However Melbourne ensemble Tek Tek, which describes itself as a revitalised anthropological dance band are what is needed to transcend this night from your regular straight-backed, wine-sipping affair into quirky and contemporary performance. Bedecked in an unusual array of outfits they serenade the audience with eclectic and catchy arrangements, the group remain largely inconspicuous during Gorr's talks, only to burst into energetic numbers to herald the arrival of a new guest. Their pieces are thought out: the Doctor Who theme comes on for science writer Margaret Wertheim, and they're happy to provide a sound scape for comedian-slash-author Mark Watson's spontaneous recreation of his journey to Melbourne.
Comedian Lawrence Leung provides further light entertainment for the night. Buoyant and assured on stage, his presentation upon his housemates' keen affection for Colin Firth as Mr Darcy is a riotous one. With the assistance of an overhead projection and an elaborately staged campaign of using quotes from Darcy in the BBC series upon unassuming civilians over the phone, Leung is jubilant in his laugh-filled and light hearted deconstruction of what it is that makes the character so popular. Lo fi artist Maria Minerva is similarly practiced in her field, although less comfortable on stage. The sound scape she weaves is ethereal: one can almost catch the hint of a child's wail or the hills in the unusual pulsating rhythms she strips raw. However, her overextended piece and more niche taste is a less appropriate fit for this event.
Gorr, familiar to listeners of 774 ABC Radio, is a constant delight. Charming and unassuming from the moment she takes the stage, her presence is at no point faked or forced. She maintains her dignity as well as an unspoken connection to audience and fellow performers alike that amuses and enthrals.
Singling out the Auslan interpreter with a kind of bemused, motherly goodwill where other presenters would skip over the well-intended comedy, Gorr brings a new element of heart to what otherwise could have been an overly academic affair. She's happy to crack jokes at her own expense, but just as easily turns conversation to insightful questions or thought provoking dialogue on the state of society today, relating issues back to herself and inadvertently to the audience as well. Her experience in the field is clear in the gems she extracts and questions her guests with.
While science writer Wertheim proves a trickier guest, slightly on edge, it's a known and understood fact that it's not often the writers on display. In comparison, Mark Watson is a practiced and dab hand at the art of performance. A stand up comedian as well as a writer, his witticisms on his own life and his easy riffing off otherwise intimidating figures such as Germaine Greer is a considerable feat. Bringing the potential elevation of the literary elite down to an accessible and grounded level, Watson's aware that he's the outlier amongst a panel of women and plays spectacularly off it. Self-deprecating at times in a way that the audience laps up, at others sharp-tongued, his joking gestures, British-born Watson is no outsider to Australia's culture or it's politics.
The silence that falls over the sea of spectators suggests that Greer's appearance is a central highlight of the night, the woman herself is sharp and unassuming of the celebrity she has unintentionally accumulated. Her shrewd intelligence aims to throw the other guests off kilter and her ruminations easily spiral into the kind of debate and social commentary we've become familiar with from her.
She receives the unanimous and spontaneous applause that marks the end of her speeches with a startled kind of grace: despite the passage of time, she seems to remain unaware of the effect she has held. Equal parts thought provoking, yet all the same confrontational, Greer's established a cult status both in tonight's audience. Her ability to slip from past narrative into current political commentary is remarkable.
Against the backdrop of further guests and hosts Gorr, Greer is certainly scintillating. The final addition to a a potentially tenuous evening, the night's academics are suitably appeased. The balance between entertainment and academics is a fine one, yet the Melbourne Writer's Festival work a suitable endeavour.