Hurrah! A play about a trans-woman, devised by trans-people, performed by trans-people. At last, a piece that has gone out of its way to explore the experiences of trans-people, and which represents them on stage. Lili tells the story of the first trans-woman to undergo full realignment, but while the concept for the production is fair, sadly most of the positives of the production end with the subject matter.
The play is set in the 1930s, when artist Lili Elbe (Simona Continente) underwent surgery to become a woman. We are taken through her story from after surgery in 1930 until her death after transplant rejection, as well as her relationship with long-time partner Greta (Victoria Elizabeth) and her romance with art dealer Claude (James Le Lacheur). The story and the characters are interesting enough on paper, but, regrettably, in practice the play feels less like something to be expected from professional theatre and more like an under-rehearsed secondary school piece.
Liz Lees’ direction is basic, and very little happens other than the actors walking into position and saying their lines. There are some moments that show there to be some creativity: Continente uses her physicality well as Lili posing for Greta’s paintings; the costumes are well-observed and have an authentic look to them; Le Lacheur, who doubles up as Greta’s husband Nando, makes clear the distinction between his two characters. But unfortunately these are positives that are outnumbered by the bland, lifeless production that surrounds them.
Although underneath the text, which is delivered clunkily by the actors, there are lines that are truly honest and come from the heart, the script is riddled with clichés. A lot of the lines feel strained and lifeless, and this isn’t helped by the way the actors accidentally interrupt each other and find themselves pausing awkwardly, presumably as a result of not knowing lines well enough. This is something that runs as an undercurrent during the whole production: a lack of professionalism. The case is the same with the lights, which are even mistimed, coming in too early or too late.
It’s evident that the actors are trying their best. Lees means well with this production – it presents an opportunity for trans-people to present their experiences and for audiences to be exposed to them, which is great. But as a piece of theatre, Lili is awkward despite being heartfelt. Perhaps it’s the thought that counts; the content of the production is important. But, regardless, that doesn’t stop it from unfortunately being a calamitous piece of theatre.
Lili is playing at Etcetera Theatre until 1 August. For more information and tickets, see the Etcetera Theatre website.