This Midsumma show was a hit in the UK and is just as resonant here in Melbourne
One of the defining features of this year’s Midsumma Festival is its total commitment to the idea of diversity; that multiverse of identities making up the alphabet soup that is the LGBTQIA community. This has seen a really sophisticated engagement with issues around gender, around intersectionality, around the very future of queerness. Of course, you don’t get a future without having a past, and a new verbatim theatre show out of the UK, The Butch Monologues, gives us a salutary reminder that the struggles with binary gender identity have deep roots. They could even been seen as the baseline of the queer experience.
Writer Laura Bridgeman and director Julie McNamara have collated stories from “Butches, Transmen and Gender Rebels from across the world”, by which they mean the US, the UK and the Caribbean. While it would have been nice to have some Australian stories in the mix, we still get plenty of local flavour – most of the readers who perform these monologues are locals who speak in their own accents, and bring their own inflections. It gives the work a truly collegiate feel, a sense of a global community in action. The storytellers vary in age, but we get a fantastic range of older voices to coexist with the younger perspectives; this is a show that subtly but powerfully champions the pioneers of gender who put their own bodies on the line before gender fluidity was even a concept.
The opening lines aren’t monologue at all, but chorus. All five performers shout out identifiers – words like “daddy” or “master” or “tomboy” – which can be read as an act of reclamation or simply an acknowledgement of personal preference. This is a motif that recurs throughout, sometimes about underwear, sometimes about soap. It may seem curiously inconsequential, but the cumulative effect is rather more substantial: sexual identity, like fetish, is incredibly specific and individualised, and for every way we may be alike within a community, there are ways in which we differ.
One of the great strengths of a show like this is the polyphony of voices, the ways in which individual experiences begin to weave together to create something akin to a shared history. One woman’s experience with breast reduction is hilarious and heartwarming, but it is followed directly by a truly horrific story of binding and scarification. There are heaps of stories of despair and isolation, of homophobia and self-harm. These are contrasted with stories of profound self-actualisation, of hot sex and amazing friendships. And wonderfully, no one experience cancels another out; it’s possible for all viewpoints, all identities, to exist side by side, to share a common humanity while expressing totally different ways of being in the world.
The performers (Fiona Jones, Anne Harris, Quinn Eades, Jax Jacki Brown, Jacques De Vere), bring varying degrees of stage experience but the entirety of their personalities to the role of reader. The ease and the openness of their readings, the way their selves shine out through the empathic embodiment of other people’s stories, speaks to the care and suppleness of McNamara’s direction as much as to their own honesty and courage. It seems a pity that the fourth wall doesn’t finally come down, so we could hear some of the presumably fascinating stories these readers have of their own.
The most impressive creative force behind The Butch Monologues is the one person who seems most in the shadows, writer Laura Bridgeman. It’s easy to think that verbatim theatre is merely an act of collation – in this case of interviewing extraordinary people and writing down their words – but it’s clear that a major talent has shaped these testimonials into something bordering on the symphonic. There is high drama, low comedy and constant tonal shifts in this piece; it’s a testament to the honesty of the interviewees, but even more to the skill of the theatre makers who conceived and manifested it. As a work of art, it’s hilarious, shocking and incredibly poignant, and a pertinent reminder that all identifications – especially the ones modern queer theory might like to leave behind – remain vital ingredients in that alphabet soup.