Drag King Richard III at Riverside Studios
While characters such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert’s Bernadette Basinger have brought female transgender experiences to the attention of a wide theatre audience, works documenting what life is like for transgender males are comparatively rare. Drag King Richard III, an autobiographical account of the gender transition of writer Terri Power’s childhood friend, and her own reaction to it, seeks to redress this balance.
The play unfolds from the perspective of La Femme (Bonnie Adair), a sometime ‘butch’ lesbian who dabbles in the conventional female sexiness she calls ‘hyper-fem drag’, but is thrown when transgender Laurie/Laurence (Anne Zander) turns to her for support.
A serendipitously timed visit to the theatre gave Power the idea of contrasting scenes from her story with those from Shakespeare’s Richard III in which she noticed an uncanny resonance. When they work well, these switches into Shakespeare are responsible for the strongest moments of the play. When Laurence recounts his parent’s rejection on learning that he plans to undergo sex reassignment surgery, the following scene recasts his mother as Shakespeare’s Duchess of York to powerful effect.
Yet the bard’s words are also the vehicle through which the piece falls flat elsewhere. For long sections, the parallels being drawn between Richard III and the contemporary story are hazy at best, occasionally verging toward the outright contrived (the relevance of one whole scene hinges solely on a very particular interpretation of the word “weapon”). This results in unfocused, muddy trudges through the weighty Shakespearean text; time which might have been better spent adding flesh and depth to the contemporary characters and the relationship between them.
While it’s through a brooding portrayal of the conflicts at play within Laurie/Laurence/Richard that Zander delivers a noteworthy performance, the constant darkness weighs the play down. It’s obviously important to highlight the struggle experienced by the transgender community, but the tone here is almost unrelentingly miserable. The lightness and humour to be found in a flashback scene where, through a haze of marijuana smoke, the schoolmates discuss Laurie’s suitability for the role of the Richard in a drama club production is all too rare.
A post-show discussion following each performance offers an opportunity to explore not just the production, but also transgender issues in general. One may find that the stories relayed offer a more rounded portrayal of these issues than the preceding play. Almost certainly, they will be more upbeat.
Drag King Richard III is on at Riverside Studios from 28th July until 3rd August 2014, for further information or to book visit here.