Before anything has even happened onstage in Being Dead (Don Quixote), its sole performer, Kerith Manderson-Galvin (who is genderqueer, and uses they/them pronouns), must apologise. They’re sorry. They’re nervous. They hope we’ll bear with them tonight. They will turn and face the wall in case anyone wants to leave without judgment.
It’s an apologetic, hyper-sensitive awareness of failure that feels like a break of character or a self-reflexive commentary on their abilities as a performer (Manderson-Galvin will continue to apologise, relentlessly, for the entire hourlong performance), but it’s more complicated than that. Manderson-Galvin is (this is going to sound like a bit of a wank, but bear with me) performing the soft places and so-called weaknesses of femininity under the guise of avant-garde post-theatre-theatre.
What does that actually mean? It’s a kind of judicious and carefully planned performance that feels like un-performance. You’ll be wondering when the actual production is going to start, but it’s already begun. Their apologies and deflections turn into snippets of memories and brief dance sequences, and before you know it, you’re in the world of the performance.
In novelist Kathy Acker’s feminist take on Don Quixote – in the same breath as the ‘Being dead’ reference in the performance’s title – she says “Being born into and part of a male world, [her female Quixote] had no speech of her own.”
With this guiding principle – and the main themes of Miguel de Cervantes’ original Don Quixote (a seemingly delusional knight with an impossible dream to forge a better reality) Acker and de Cervantes’ exploration of fantasy, narrative realism and nihilism become Manderson-Galvin’s own attempt to define themselves in a world without ready language to accommodate them. At one point, so unused to the concept of ‘accommodation’, they repeatedly stumble over the word.
Manderson-Galvin’s quest for selfhood explores their queer awakening, milestones of womanhood (in homage to Acker’s text), ‘weakness’ and the queer femme identity through a series of vignettes, interrupting asides, and movement. In the piece, they are more Cassandra than Quixote, a self-styled overlooked and discounted prophet, deliberately obscuring their meaning from audiences, inviting them to work with alongside Manderson-Galvin rather than just watch them work for the assembled group.
There are snippets from online dating conversations and the harassment that often comes with it; a pink hat for Sancho; K-Mart fandom; singalongs; misplaced title cards; a smoke machine. It’s an outward meditation with hidden grace, a deliberately challenging, self-effacing work that under its surface is a calculating provocation: accept this radical femme softness, all apologies and uncertainty, and find it worthy of your time and your attention.
In one referential through-line, they tell us about the mystical pull of the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie (witches and queer femmes have a long and affectionate history); Manderson-Galvin always thought that death scene was beautiful. Later, they melt like the witch into a pool of pink satin for a movement piece that lingers and luxuriates – surrendering to, and finding strength in, softness. They are reborn from within it.
Being Dead is a carved-out space for those who are afraid to claim it, but it’s also post-structuralist theatre with a philosophical impetus that denies an audience the relief of a linear plot, conventional storytelling, or familiar (male-dominated) narrative drama. It’s built on symbols and codes, subtext and meta-referential practice. Audiences are necessarily cast as archaeologists, uncovering meaning from Manderson-Galvin’s signals. It looks messy, but it’s disciplined.
It’s almost hostile in its refusal to guide you into meaning – but it’s also admirable in its refusal to tell you what to think about this polarising artistic practice. It’s not easy, it’s not “a regular play”, and it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It might not ever charm you. But there’s real beauty at its heart.