A question of gender

Last night, I watched a double-bill of plays at the Dundee Rep. They were: Eve and Adam, productions by the National Theatre of Scotland. They were billed as: ‘two new uplifting, brave and deeply personal productions exploring extraordinary lives in transition.’ Both lived up to these words. They are about people tortured by gender dysphoria, and by societal condemnation, but who were able to become who they always felt themselves to be. A woman who was born a man; and a man who was born a woman.

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Eve was written by Jo Clifford and Chris Goode. On a simple set, mostly in darkness, Jo Clifford, a prolific playwright, told her own story from childhood in the nineteen fifties as a boy who wanted desperately to be a girl, and then recalled the frightening experience of English boarding school, the death of his much-loved mother when he was 12, and fears of being rejected by a transgender ‘expert’ if she said anything which could be used to question if she was a ‘real transexual’. She spoke about a colleague who drank himself to death because he could never bring himself to live openly as a woman.

Sitting on a simple platform, and at times walking around to look up at large screens of photographs of herself as a boy and man, she conducted a monologue to her former self. The overall effect of her story: of feeling entirely alone was shocking and thought-provoking at the same time. The half-lit woman on stage, the old snapshots projected in giant size, and the power of a single voice recalling ‘resistance against hatred and against fear and against shame’ (to quote some words in the programme): it all combined to convey a life. Falling in love and bringing up a family were part of that life.

Afterwards, my wife Isobel said to me: “It made you think. People should be allowed to be who they want to be.”

Susan Worsfold was Director and Set Designer on Eve. It was an unobtrusive style of direction, the best kind for such a powerful monologue: creating just enough atmosphere and the right setting to allow the audience to drink in the words spoken: the anger, fear, and courage, and the details of the spoken story, with minimal distractions from music or any other elements. Only in a brief psychedelic scene, illustrating an LSD experience, was there a wave of several elements: of movement and music and psychedelic video, but that was required, and then the play refocused on Jo’s voice speaking to an auditorium full of fascinated listeners.

I later found out that the director is also a voice coach; and she ‘has worked with the transgender community in Scotland through the LGBT Health Centre, where she has developed ‘Finding Our Voice’ workshops with both the senior and youth trans community.’ Here.

The second play, Adam, was written by the wonderfully named Frances Poet and directed by Cora Bissett . It told the true story of a young man born a woman in Egypt, and her powerful desire to become a man; the journey to Scotland as an asylum seeker where that transition was made; and the horror of hundreds of days of barely-surviving on a few pounds a week and injecting testosterone (or something called that) bought from the internet. The young actors Adam Kashmiry (playing himself and a few other brief roles); and Rehanna MacDonald (playing Adam’s former self, his mother, and a former girlfriend) gave the kind of powerful performances which are only possible when the beating heart of a life is understood and communicated.

The set made clever use of trapdoors to add and remove elements of the story, in Egypt and in Scotland, including memorably a laptop whereby Adam first realises he is not alone. When the trapdoors are shut, the stage reverts to a bare, metallic space where Adam and his former self prowl around and around like caged big cats. The choreography of their movements was perfectly suited to Adam’s passionate attempts to escape cages of gender, abuse, failures to understand him, and authoritarian officialdom. The background flickers with images from the Egyptian revolution and the cage of a small flat in Scotland.

Director Cora Bissett, who convinced Adam to appear in the play, commented in the programme: ‘I kept coming back to this moment where he told me he typed a question into a laptop ‘I feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body’…and a whole community opened up to him.’

Central to the impact which this play has is the inclusion of video performances by the Adam World Choir. This is ‘a global digital community of (120) transgender and non-binary people from the USA to Russia, Denmark to Slovenia, Australia to the Netherlands.’ Their voices add a haunting, collective counter-point to the story of Adam, struggling to become himself – largely alone.

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On sale at this showing were copies of a book: I AM. Stories from transgender and non-binary people across the world. It came from a project developed by the Mental Health Foundation and the Adam World Choir. It includes an introduction by Jo Clifford. All profits will go the Mental Health Foundation.

Both plays also contain moments of laughter and moments of great gentleness where the reality of love breaks into the darkness.

Jo Clifford also wrote a monologue called Dear Scotland. It contains the lines:

‘Don’t be ashamed to be people of both genders or of none
Listen to those of us who don’t fit in. Cherish your outcasts.’

I hope that is precisely what this short review of these plays has done.

Harvey Duke

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