'Wig Out!' at the Royal Court: preview

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There's a subculture among American drag queens that takes part in extravagant catwalk-based competitions and flamboyant costumes. Time Out visits the London theatre staging a play documenting the intriguing world of 'ballroom'

  • 'Wig Out!' at the Royal Court: preview

    The main drag © Johan Persson

  • The Royal Court is embracing drag for Christmas but don’t expect sing alongs, custard pie fights or typical pantomine dames. Instead, when I visit the theatre, it looks as if it has signed itself up as a venue for London Fashion Week. The stage appears to have vanished and there’s a giant, glossy catwalk stretching right through the stalls and lined with seats. The runway is a major feature of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new play ‘Wig Out!’, which premiered in New York in October and opens here this week in a production by Dominic Cooke. It promises to be very different from ‘The Brothers Size’ and ‘In the Red and Brown Water’, the gritty, poetic dramas that were staged in London at the Young Vic and have marked McCraney out as a fabulous new talent.

    Instead, ‘Wig Out!’ focuses on the extravagant, mirror ball world of American ballroom culture, not to be confused with the ballroom dancing attempted on primetime TV until recently by John Sergeant. Instead, gay men – mostly African American or Latino – strut down the runway and are judged for the authenticity of their performance and the beauty of their costumes, as well as their talent for dancing and especially for vogueing. It’s the subculture, heavily drawn on by both Madonna and Beyoncé, that was documented in ‘Paris is Burning’ in 1990.

    Ultz, the eccentrically named designer and director, is no stranger to reinventing the Court’s auditorium. Both his designs for ‘Fall Out’ and ‘Stoning Mary’ radically reworked the space. He’s also the right man for ‘Wig Out!’ since he has been drawn in the past into directing many of Jean Genet’s plays, which are, like McCraney’s, also concerned with presentation and gender confusion.

    As well as the competitions, the play looks behind the scenes to the way in which those who feel like exiles in mainstream society band themselves together in alternative, rival families or houses, frequently named after fashion designers. A house mother and house father look after the young men who have often run away from their biological families to the big city. The result is a distorted, mirror version of family values that are so vigorously promoted by Christian fundamentalists.

    As part of his research, Ultz has spent hours trawling the internet and he opens up folders labelled House of Infiniti or House of Blahnik to show YouTube footage of the competitions taking place. ‘ “Paris is Burning” dealt with the same culture 20 years before,’ he says. ‘The lovely thing here is that Tarell has done something that is completely up to date. The astonishing thing is that it’s nothing like drag in the sense of Danny La Rue.’ Flicking through portraits of young men wearing make-up but dressed in the hip hop fashion of today, he says, ‘It reminds me a lot of the early days of Boy George and Julian Clary where it’s a made-up face but dressed like a man and therefore quite androgynous. It’s more Beyoncé and Jay-Z than Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe.’ The disorientation is a bit like that felt in an all-male production of ‘As You Like It’.

    Ballroom culture is rare over here, although one house mother did come and speak to the actors. The competitions judge such things as female realness, schoolboy realness, butch queen, sex siren. ‘The mother of one of the houses is a lesbian,’ says Ultz ‘and she keeps winning the female realness competition, which is a bit odd as she’s a real woman! There are a lot of women connected to the houses who are mostly lesbian or transgender.’ Equally The Fates (there are many classical and biblical allusions in McCraney’s script), who guide the audience through the play are all played by women.

    For most Londoners, the world McCraney portrays on stage is going to be an alien one, although Ultz points out that it is not so different from Roy Williams’s ‘Fall Out’, which had a cast of characters ‘most people in the audience would cross the road to avoid’. But is there a danger that ‘Wig Out!’ will be voyeuristic? ‘Dominic wouldn’t let that happen,’ says the designer. ‘He’s very keen not to objectify the characters. I think he will want you to understand, enjoy and adore these people. The cast is very brilliant and very open, as you have to be with this subject matter. Funnily enough, the runway makes it less voyeuristic because you are part of the whole thing. ’

    ‘Wig Out!’ is playing at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs.

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