Credit where credit’s due: we are told director Roz Hopkinson had only three days of rehearsal with Anne Zander and Bonnie Adair. And so sets the scene. We become a friendly and forgiving pre-warned audience.
Terri Power’s piece tells the story of the female to male transition of Laurie, a topic rarely covered on stage. Power is lesbian herself, and “wrestled constantly with whether she had the authority to write about the trans experience”. A fair point I think; there is something that feels a little jarring about such a personalised transgender story written by someone cisgender. But in the absence of other, perhaps more expert, voices, Power makes a sterling effort. The story of Laurie, and lesbian friend and confidante La Femme, is interspersed with chunks from Richard III. This textual marriage is, alas, not a very fruitful one.
Seemingly based on the fact that he wrote very well and lived a long time ago, Shakespeare’s words can be found propping up contemporary texts, providing filler and pseudo-gravitas. It’s all a bit frustrating. The blocks of Shakespearean text are a bit like the ad breaks in an ITV drama, interrupting plot and stalling momentum. When Power tells the story of Laurie and La Femme it is deeply, deeply interesting. If I wanted Richard III I could have popped over to Trafalgar Studios instead. Sometimes you’ve just got to be confident that your own words are enough to sustain the audience’s attention.
I was, for instance, very interested in the concept of ‘femme drag’ reserved by some lesbians only for “weddings, parties and hot dates”, and the misogynistic response this persona can so depressingly receive. Likewise, Laurie’s heartfelt plea; “I am a man. I just want the outer me to reflect that.” Sod the bard; let’s just have more of this stuff.
Zander and Adair both give sympathetic and engaging performances. There is a warmth and connection between the two that feels genuine, probably witnessed best when the pair reminisce about their schooldays. There is an ease and fluency in these anecdotal pieces that seems missing in the Shakespeare. But, with three days rehearsal, very well done indeed.
People in this country know more about Richard III than they do about transgender issues. I’m not calling for a Shakespeare cull by any means, but let’s get more transgender stories out there please.
Drag King Richard III is on at Riverside Studios until 3 August. For more information and tickets, see the Riverside Studios website.