It’s unlikely you’ll get what you expect from Waterloo. In sixty-five minutes, Melbourne artist Bron Batten takes her audience — often by the hand — on a recollection of her failed affair with a senior British military official, dubbed as one ‘Sergeant Troy.’ The snag in their relationship? He is a Tory, a Thatcherite, and a foreign policy hawk. Naturally, she is a Greens-voting, almost-vegan, pacifist. The title, regrettably, has nothing to do with either Napoleon’s infamous defeat, or ABBA’s campy Eurovision classic. Instead, it refers to the affair’s origin in Paris. With 2023 shaping up as the year of those who could or could not visit Europe, it’s a pleasant consolation to see how it can go so easily wrong.
Mixing a potion of showmanship and pyrotechnics, Batten ensures the audience will not leave without having found something to its liking. Whether it’s the stand-up speeches, steaming with sarcastic asides between the narration, or the audience participation in — not too arduous — games, Batten keeps the circuses flying, always with the personability of an excellent performer. In less capable hands, large-scale audience participation and physical comedy might seem excessive, or even juvenile. However, when balanced with her narrative style, and the interspersing of quiet moments onstage with a found footage style film of a paintball game — eerily reminiscent of real war footage — we are kept interested as the story goes on.
However, this is where the performance comes undone; where does the story go? We spent nearly an hour watching slapstick and being told about a series of trysts in elegant European apartments, building to a finale, only for it to end in a mildly thoughtful musing on the complexity of existing in a world with war. Then with a shrug, Batten exits stage right, back to her own life, to make the show we have just seen.
Waterloo builds itself up constantly into a light-hearted comedy coating the audiences’ throats, but in the end, it is all pill and no powder. It has immense potential as a genuine exploration of war, of polarisation, of climate change, but it feels unfinished as it is. Sergeant Troy as a character is never fully drawn; he moves from the Tory stereotype to considerate lover to bastard without much explanation. The choice to have an audience member — prosecco in hand — play as the Sergeant is also certainly a misfire. But, in a world where reading the news plunges you into a spiral of despair, Waterloo begs the question — why?
In fairness, this is more a fault in promotion than performance. In comedy, “why” is a non-starter; there is no “why” when George Costanza goes fishing for rye; it’s simply hilarious to watch. The same is true of Waterloo; and make no mistake, it is hilarious. The jokes land well, and the crowd participation adds a thrill of the unknown, of the possibly unsympathetic, keeping a slightly precarious atmosphere. A fun night out will be had by all but come with a grain of salt — and perhaps some company too.