“I find it hard to talk about my feelings attached to the destruction of the mural…” | Paul Mac & Lachlan Philpott discuss Saint George

For a year, a giant mural covered the whole side of a house in Sydney’s Inner West. Commissioned by the house’s occupants, famed Sydney djs and producers Paul Mac and Jonny Seymour, artist Scott Marsh created the colourful painting of George Michael to honour and celebrate the life of the much-loved queer icon. It was a local landmark, seen by thousands from the adjacent trainline, until it was targetted by Christian religious extremists following the result of the marriage equality survey.

Ahead of a very special work-in-progress concert next week at Mardi Gras, the creators of The Rise and Fall of Saint George, Paul and Lachlan Philpott, chatted with Thom about the lasting shadow of the postal survey campaign, their process for working across different art forms, and how a moment of senseless violence and destruction became a chance for community healing.

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The Rise and Fall of Saint George is one of the projects supported by our Agents of Change matched funding program. See below for how you can contribute to the creation of urgent new work.

Thom: Hi! The Rise and Fall of Saint George…what is it?

Paul: To me it’s an ambitious musical experiment to document the emotional weight experienced by many people surrounding the fallout of the Marriage Equality survey. Musically, it’s completely new territory for me. There’s some traditional dance-pop music in there, but there’s also abstract electronic instrumental music, spoken word, operatic overtones, power house soloists and a community choir. I always get excited when you can’t fit a work into an existing genre.

Lachlan: We are still figuring it out, which is part of the fun. Is it a concept album played live or a piece of gig theatre or something altogether new… yeah, um, we dunno yet. But I know it is big and pretty fucking exciting.

 

Thom: How did you both get involved in the project?

Lachlan: Paul contacted me to talk about another project and it was around the time the George Michael mural got destroyed. Funnily enough someone else had kind of beaten us to the other idea and so I suggested to him a project about the mural’s destruction was what we should be working on. It took a little bit of convincing him mainly because he had been so scarred form it all but our art must bear witness to our times and this is a project that sure does that.

Paul: Once the other project fell over and Lachlan and I decided to go with this story I got really excited. Theatre is new to me and in tandem with Lachlan, we could both really stretch our creative possibilities. I’d love to thank the amazing Kevin Jackson who was our artistic matchmaker and set up our first artistic date.

Paul Mac

Lachlan Philpott

Thom: Lachlan, what is your role on the show? Have you worked with a composer like Paul in this way before?

Lachlan: I write lyrics and Paul writes the tunes and then we sit together and play about, Paul sings badly and then does brilliant compositions. Occasionally he changes the words saying they don’t scan, and I usually bite my tongue. After that we kind of work on other stuff together – that sounds vague, but I don’t have a very extensive music vocab. I know we are also shaping ideas and figuring out story but so far, the focus has been on the music.

I have just begun working on lyrics over the last few years and have two shows in Mardi Gras with songs I’ve worked on. It is such a fun way to collaborate and so quick compared to writing a play. I really love it. It beats writing plays that can take years to become something if they ever do at all.

 

Paul: This music means so much to me. I started the process by grabbing the audio from a video filmed at the moment of the final destruction of the mural. I wanted to take the literal sound of hatred, fear, panic and positive community response and try to build something beautiful out of it musically.

Working with Lachlan is a whole new angle. In most of my previous albums I have written the lyrics and driven the direction of what the song was about. With Lachlan, we discuss directions, themes and then he pumps out some incredible words that sum it up and I take that and build music out of it. After it began to get more complex harmonically as I was demoing the songs I realised that it needed a choir to sing all of the parts and to “be” the community. A private joy I have is that Lachlan is forced to hear my multi-tracked nasal voice over and over again as he develops the lyrics.

Thom: Do you have any stories about the mural?

Paul: Even after all of this time I find it hard to talk about my feelings attached to the destruction of the mural. Scott Marsh’s amazing work was commissioned out of love, received by the community with respect and it brought a smile to hundreds of thousands of people who travelled past it on the train on their way to work everyday. And then, it was gone. During the show I will try to express some of those feelings. I’m just hoping that I can do it without breaking down and crying to be honest.

Lachlan: I loved the mural and was devastated to hear what happened to it but as usual I was overseas working and so I saw it online from the US. Like everyone, I was stunned and devastated at what had been done and what it symbolised. I didn’t know Paul at that point but I have known Jonny Seymour well for ages and I knew how this would affect him.

View of the mural from the train

30,000+ people rallied in Sydney for Marriage Equality

 

 

The crowd at Prince Alfred Park gathered to hear the Yes result

Thom: For many, myself included, the postal survey was a really tough time, and has left a scar that hasn’t healed quickly, if at all. What was your experience of the campaign like?

Paul: I remember people at the start of the survey process saying that this would be a hugely traumatic period for many in the LGBTQIA community. I don’t think I quite appreciated the gravity of that until it was brought to our home. I didn’t know that that level of anger, fear and violence intertwined with religious belief even existed. For me and my housemate, that resulted in very real feelings of fear for safety, panic attacks, and depression. The absolute euphoria of the positive result was quickly smashed by the events that followed it, in our case, becoming a target for a lot of anger.

That’s my experience, but also there are so many stories of others who have told me of house attacks, angry confrontations when campaigning, divisive political strategies fuelling the fire and families becoming estranged. All of this was so unnecessary when we now realise that the moral tide had turned and the majority of the population around the nation supported it all along. That is the only compensation I can take from all of this. It was shitty, painful, hurtful and unnecessary, but at the end of the day, we are making progress and slowly, equality is a goal that we are moving towards.

 

Lachlan: I was never a huge advocate for marriage equality. I am not religious and feel resistant of the type of hetero and patriarchal conformity it symbolises. People should be allowed to be queer and feral and many of us have identities that are not tied up in monogamy. I was in Mexico the day marriage equality was passed there [well before Australia did it] and it changed my view because I saw how important it was to my brothers and sisters. I also watched the campaign in Ireland because my long-term partner is Irish and was aware of how sweet and symbolic such a victory could be.

So, in the end I did a lot of work for the campaign, mainly for humanitarian convictions and because the smug righteousness of the NO campaign pissed me off. I did a lot of door knocking and volunteering at public places to encourage young people to get onto the electoral roll.

It was a horrible time for me because my long-term relationship was disintegrating so at the same time I was door knocking I had a very heavy heart. Most who door knocked had doors slammed in their faces, and that hurt. It also hurt to see that while most people were enjoying their day there were people marching around with YES t-shirts on spending hours trying to convince people to vote yes in the most absurd exercise in Australia’s democratic history. A postal plebiscite? I still cannot fathom it. It makes me so angry to hear Turnbull take credit for the plebiscite when he showed no spine at all. What a disaster he was as a leader.

Sadly, my relationship ended just before the plebiscite result was announced and that was tough. The whole period was a pretty blue time for me since I was writing a play about the gangs who had bashed and killed gay men in the 80’s and 90’s of Sydney’s coast, and also doing a lot of work with playwrights in rural Australia and seeing the type of vilification that they were subjected to during the campaign.

Thom: How has that fed in to your work on the show?

Lachlan: There is a depth of sadness and disbelief about that period and a conviction to tell it through art so it is on public record. Art must bear witness to our times and the damage done during this time must not be forgotten or glazed over by people who say- you got the yes vote so shut the fuck up. The money spent on that idiotic plebiscite could have been spent to help homeless LGBTIQ people. It could have been spent on supporting those in our community suffering from mental health issues. Instead it contributed to exacerbating them.

Paul: This work will hopefully act as a reminder of the strength of character that many in our community and our allies displayed during these troubling times. It will hopefully inspire ongoing positivity as the discussions of freedom of religion vs freedom of expression continue to play out politically and culturally. Without trying to sound like a total wanker, I hope it will act as a cathartic healing experience for all involved. Out of all of the shit that happened something really beautiful will be created. That’s my hope right there!

A still from footage of one attack

The Happy Ending by Scott Marsh

After the attack

Scott Marsh painting a mural around the corner from our office

Thom: This attack, and a concurrent attack on another of Scott’s works on the nearby Botany View Hotel, have become very real symbols of the struggle between freedom of expression and ‘religious freedom’. What is your response to those who say the mural mocked religious iconography?

Paul: That’s a very good question. Good art often pushes at the boundaries of the question “What is offensive?” That is what I’ve always loved about Scott Marsh’s work. He uses humour and politics in playful and questioning ways quite masterfully. In the case of St. George, I don’t think it was remotely offensive. The use of saint iconography is a well understood artistic tradition. Most people got this which is why it went untouched for eleven months. It was only when it was misunderstood by some who thought it was meant to represent or mock Jesus. That was a completely wrong reading of it. It wasn’t meant to be Jesus at all. It was meant to be a mythical saint, St George.

On the other hand, the George Pell/Tony Abbott mural on the side of the Botany View Hotel was way closer to the “offensive” line. It was sexually provocative and more hard hitting. I can understand why that offended some religious people. The question then is, what is the appropriate response to that. As the magistrate pointed out, there are many ways to do this. You could write a letter of objection to the council, you could write to the pub and complain. What you probably shouldn’t do is buy some paint and attack it. I would never go to a church, business or home and attack imagery that I disagreed with. I respect that people can hold whatever religious views they want and live their life according to those views. I object when people then inflict that on people who don’t share those views. That’s what a pluralist society means.

Thom: What is your vision for the final show going forward?

Paul: This in-progress concert version will help us work out what the final show looks and feels like. That’s the exciting part. We don’t know yet, but it feels good so far.

Lachlan: The showing is a key moment so we can hear it all and figure out where to go next. I adore working with Paul and our Director Kate Champion, and I am very excited about the next steps.


The Rise and Fall of Saint George by Paul Mac & Lachlan Philpott
Work-in-progress Concert | Thurs 28 Feb [SOLD OUT]
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras | Seymour Centre

More info>>

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