October 2013

Essays

Benjamin Law

Eddie Perfect unleashes the beast

© Julian Kingma

Pigging out with the star of stage and screen

It’s entirely possible that Eddie Perfect has the most resplendent hair in Australia. The composer-performer might be 35, an age at which most men have started to thin out up top, yet Perfect’s whipped blond meringue is a sight to behold: what happens when electric shock meets quality hair product. When he arrives red-cheeked from Melbourne’s chill, decked in a black Fred Perry pullover, the hair almost precedes the man himself.

One of the first things Eddie Perfect tells me is that he’s not great with long interviews. It’s not because he’s afraid of being dissected, more that he can’t fathom why anyone would find him – bona fide TV star; cabaret wünderkind; ARIA chart-climber; Logie nominee; the man responsible for Shane Warne: The musical; the adult choirboy who gets away with singing the most delightfully reprehensible stuff – remotely interesting. Tim Minchin – Perfect’s friend and jester laureate – once jokingly threatened to write ‘Eddie Perfect: The musical’ if Perfect died before him. When I bring up the idea now, Perfect recoils. A musical based on his life, he says, would be the most heinously boring thing in the world. “There would be long, terminal songs about work–life balance and identity, and the torn nature between whether I should stay in this country or go to another one,” he says.

We’ve met at Josie Bones in Collingwood, a nose-to-tail restaurant that specialises in serving gourmet offal, butchery and gore. Given the subject matter of Perfect’s latest project, we agree to order the most confronting thing on the restaurant’s menu: half a pig’s face, roasted to a crisp and designed to be torn apart. Perfect’s forthcoming play The Beast – written for the Melbourne Theatre Company – centres on the slaughter of a baby animal and will feature copious amounts of blood on stage. (“A lot of blood,” he emphasises.) The Beast’s plot is simple: three middle-class tree-change couples arrange for a calf to be ethically butchered for a dinner party but end up faced with the grim task of killing the creature themselves. After countless awards for Perfect’s musicals and cabaret shows, The Beast represents two firsts for him: it’s the first thing he’s written that doesn’t involve singing, and the first in which he won’t perform. Rehearsals begin the next day and Perfect is nervous. “I’m not going to know what to do with my hands on opening night,” he says. “I’ve never sat in an audience to watch a show of mine.”

As he explains The Beast to me, I tell him it reminds me of Manderlay, Lars von Trier’s 2005 Brechtian film in which a donkey was slaughtered live on set, prompting a key actor to quit the production. (Von Trier pulled the offending scene from the final cut.) For reasons unknown, MTC has billed The Beast as adults only. Even Perfect doesn’t know why. Will a calf actually be slaughtered on stage?

“It’d be hard to do that eight shows a week,” he points out. “We’d run out of cows.”

A waiter interrupts us to present the restaurant’s signature dish on a tray. The pig’s face arrives bisected, vertically sliced from forehead to jaw, and lying on its side. It looks like the pig might wake up at any moment. To counter this illusion, the chef has stabbed it square in the eyeball with a large knife. There’s no shying away from the brutality of it all.

“Yeah,” Perfect says. “It’s like, ‘Let’s not pretend this is anything other than what it is.’”

“Are you grossed out?” I ask.

“No,” he says, adding quietly, “I’m kind of into it.”


Edmund Perfect is his swear-to-God real name. Going through his family tree is like reading the cast of characters for a jolly sitcom: his grandfather was Percy Perfect, his mother is Judy Perfect and his father is Tom Perfect, an Englishman who settled in Victoria as a ten-pound Pom. One of three kids, Perfect is sandwiched between sisters Celeste and Anna. From a young age, the Perfect siblings’ extracurricular activities were distinctly European: they studied music at the Yamaha Music School in Malvern and attended ballet classes together. “Sport was always there – it’s kind of unavoidable,” Perfect says, “but there was the sense of a classical education being important.” There was always a piano in the house. Perfect was playing by ear at the age of five.

His music teacher was appalled. “When I was about six, the teacher finally worked out that I was not sightreading and refused to play anything for me after that. I just lost interest.” By that stage, Perfect already preferred Billy Joel to Brahms. In his mid-teens, he discovered Hendrix, grunge and the blues, picked up a guitar and found himself interested in music again. He returned to the piano stool, and hasn’t stopped playing since.

“I love that instrument,” he says. “It’s different to the guitar. I reckon there are guitar people and piano people. There’s the Tin Pan Alley piano tradition that comes all the way from the Gershwins and Broadway through to Billy Joel, Elton John and Tom Waits. Then there’s the guitar tradition that runs all the way through folk and Bob Dylan. I was always a piano person. You sit down at a piano and it’s an orchestra in a box. You’ve got rhythm, you’ve got harmony – you’ve got all the parts for all the movements.”

As well as focusing on the arts, Judy and Tom Perfect – both teachers – instilled in their children a deep affection for the Australian outdoors. When Perfect was 12, his parents took the kids out of school for an entire term to travel across Australia in a Kombi van. On the road, the Perfect family would play and sing along to The Pirates of Penzance soundtrack and Gilbert and Sullivan songs, as well as properly demented stuff, like the 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet Street, whose antihero is a deranged, vengeful barber and murderer who has his victims cooked in pies.

“All of it was songwriting in the service of selling an idea,” Perfect says now. “I always responded to that.”

After duxing St Bede’s, an all-boys high school in Mentone, Perfect found university utterly demoralising. Convinced he was destined to be a great visual artist, he enrolled in RMIT’s printmaking course. The problem, his lecturers said, was that he didn’t have anything to say with the medium. Perfect was still singing in amateur musicals as a hobby, so he enrolled in a four-year course at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music to study classical singing. The idea was to become an opera singer.

At the end of the students’ second year, they performed a recital so they could be assessed and separated into disciplines. To get into the prestigious performing stream, students had to score a high distinction. Everyone who didn’t make the grade was left with the offcut options: music therapy, music education or composition. Perfect thought he’d made it. Then he discovered he hadn’t.

“I was devastated,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘What do I do now?’ I didn’t want to sing ‘Kumbaya’ for old people – not that there’s anything wrong with old people – but I was like, ‘That’s not what I got into this for.’”

Meanwhile, all of Perfect’s theatre friends were focused on auditions to get into Perth’s Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), which, at that stage, offered Australia’s only full-time musical theatre degree. Perfect figured it would be impossible to get in, but auditioned anyway. One of the songs he performed was ‘Rhymes Have I’, taken from the 1950s musical Kismet, set in an Arabian Nights-esque Baghdad. It’s perfect Perfect material. “I love that song, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s a man in an open marketplace, literally selling nothing but rhymes.”

Sly rhymes, wry rhymes, meet rhymes have I
To a world too prone to be prosaic
I bring my own panacea
An iota of iambic and a tittle of trochaic
Added to a small amount of onomatopoeia

Perfect nailed the audition. Even now, he often thinks about what would’ve happened had WAAPA not accepted him. When I ask whether the decision to commit to study on the other side of the country was difficult, Perfect laughs. “Not when you had the girlfriend I had,” he says. To get away from her, Perfect says he would have gone to “the Siberian Academy of Performing Arts. SAPA.”

At WAAPA, Perfect began to write songs prolifically. When productions needed original tunes, he volunteered. When students devised group sketches – mini university revues – Perfect wrote their songs. By 22, and in his second year at WAAPA, Perfect had written and performed his first musical, Up, which Australian high school students still occasionally perform. 

“I remember playing the concert and thinking, ‘This is the only thing I’ve ever discovered in my life that I love more than performing. If I got attacked by a lion and my voice box got ripped out, it would be OK as long as I could still use my hands and write music.’”

It’s strange to think, then, that Perfect would write a play like The Beast. Knocking back the crisp, sour beer the barman has told us best accompanies a roasted pig’s face, Perfect says, “I wanted to challenge myself to write something without songs. I have no qualifications to write a play, but I had no qualifications to compose music either. I just got to a point where I was comfortable with composing music through trial and error. So this is the new frontier: ‘Why don’t I just write a play?’”

Though initially nervous about the lack of a soundtrack, Perfect said he quickly felt liberated. “Writing a song is a very constructed, difficult thing to do,” he says. “You’ve got to sit in a house with a piano and ignore your kids. You’ve got to try and find time to write. [With a play] all you’ve got to do is write words. You can just sit anywhere – here, in a cafe, in the park – and just write.”

The Beast was partly inspired by something that happened when Perfect and his wife, Lucy, moved to regional Victoria for two years in 2010. Perfect had just finished the first run of Shane Warne: The musical. Their first daughter, Kitty, was three months old and they were climbing the walls, having outgrown Lucy’s apartment in Richmond. The family needed space. “We went out on a weekend to Healesville, saw this amazing house and were like, ‘This is great.’” On a whim, they applied for the lease and scored the property. An hour out of Melbourne proper, the location was ideal, except that Perfect had to wake up at 4 am to get to shoots for the Channel Ten show Offspring.

Eddie and Lucy befriended locals and were invited to a dinner party declared the Feast of the Beast. The concept was to have a humanely slaughtered calf butchered on site, with all the guests present and witnessing the process from start to finish. From there, each couple would create a course from a part of the calf. The Perfects had the job of making ravioli with the tail.

On the day of the feast, something went wrong. “When the guy turned up to do the butchering, he stuck his knife in the carcass. It was hanging up in a refrigerated trailer, ready for butchering. Then the whole thing shifted and [the butcher] fell onto his knife and cut his hand open. Everyone rushed him to Ringwood Hospital. He was fine: he got stitched up, gloved up, bandaged up, came back and finished the butchering.”

Later, at dinner, the couples speculated about what could have happened if a professional hadn’t been able to slaughter and butcher the calf. What would you do if he wasn’t there? Perfect felt it was a great premise. “They [the characters] wanted to have an experience where the animal was completely respected,” he says. “But, in reality, they are forced to kill it in a way that causes great suffering, and so it negates their entire purpose for having undertaken the task in the first place.”

In writing The Beast, Perfect wanted to critique the (he suspects flimsy) ethical ideals of a particular 21st-century urban demographic – essentially, he says, the kind of person who might be a typical MTC theatre subscriber. “It’s about the distinction between the things people do that are good and the things people do in the cause of making themselves look good. It’s about people who wear their particular causes as a badge of honour.”

Now that he’s written the play, does Perfect feel he has a stronger grasp on where he stands on animal welfare, the ethics of meat consumption and moral vanity?

“I’m so murky about it,” he says, sawing into the swine-face on his plate. “I don’t think I could have written this play if I was clear about it. I don’t know if we had an agenda to push, but —”

He interrupts himself, mouth full of meat, and involuntarily groans. “Ugh,” he says. “This is so good.”


Perfect’s next project will be epic. He plans to write a musical based on Australia’s colonial settlement from 1788 to 1792. People in the industry already refer to it as ‘The Fatal Shore: The musical’. “It’s an opportunity to write something really bold, fucking black, bleak, funny, dark and wrong about our country’s origins, in a way that makes everyone – from whitefellas to blackfellas to ethnic minorities – laugh,” he says, pushing away the fatty, mutilated pig’s carcass. It’s either writing this, he says, “or I could end up writing ‘The Castle: The musical’”.

When asked whether he’d consider writing another play, Perfect winces.

“It depends how this goes,” he says. “It could be the worst thing ever.” For him, the worst-case scenario for The Beast is that “the audience hates it, the critics hate it, no one goes, it’s a flop”.

“When was the last time you were behind a flop, though?” I ask.

Shane Warne: The musical.”

I point out that the musical was a huge critical success. Shane Warne himself was reluctantly dragged along to one of the shows, before hooting with applause and having his photo taken with Perfect for publicity.

“Yeah, but it didn’t make anyone any money,” Perfect says of the production. “The show itself was good, but the original production was a commercial flop. Everybody who invested in that show lost their money. I invested three years of my life on it, so I lost money in that respect, too. I’m not diminishing the show or anything, but it was a commercial failure. My parents wanted to invest in it, too, and I’m so fucking glad that they didn’t.”

When Perfect reprised the show earlier this year for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (ensuring costs were covered) with new material (namely: Elizabeth Hurley), he found he still liked the work. “It’s been five years since I did it the first time, and I wasn’t embarrassed. That’s saying something. Every other show, I’ve been embarrassed by the material.”

After the latest run of Shane Warne, though, Perfect felt burnt out. When I ask him about his schedule over the past few years, he says the following in one complete sentence, no full-stops, a circular-breathing roll-call of commitments that prevented him from having a holiday for a long time.

“There was Offspring,” he says, “and Offspring rolled into a whole bunch of corporate Christmas stuff, then there was more Offspring, but at the same time I was writing The Beast, and we were workshopping The Beast in the gaps, and doing Perfect Tripod [an album of covers of Australian classics, recorded with musical comedians Tripod] in January, then Shane Warne: The musical was coming up and I was like, ‘I’m going to have a break after Shane Warne: The musical!’ but then I agreed to host the Helpmann Awards, which was a fucking mistake and meant I had to write a whole bunch of stuff, so instead of finishing Shane Warne: The musical and having a break, which is what my brain needed, I was going, ‘I have to do the Helpmanns,’ which was brutally hard work to write.” Perfect’s original plan – to fly to New York after Shane Warne – never happened. “I realised I hadn’t booked any tickets, because I’d been so busy.”

It was winter, so he booked tickets to Byron Bay instead – on his own.

“It’s a very weird thing to do,” he says. “Lucy wanted me to go to New York because it would make her feel better about the fact she was being a mum on her own, that I’d be overseas and be out of sight, out of mind. It was like a family holiday, without the family.” For just over a week, all Perfect did was surf, read books and drink beer. It was exactly what he needed.

At least, that’s how he sees it now. Really, Perfect can’t stay still. It’s appropriate that the man’s trademark is that fin of blond hair. Like a shark, Eddie Perfect will die if he stops moving.

“Christ, it’s hard to not work,” he tweeted while in Byron Bay. “I’m walking the line between relaxation and hating myself.”

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.

@mrbenjaminlaw

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