It’s been a long journey. And it’s far from over. But in 2017, people finally seem to be getting on board with the fact that gender is a construct.
Ok, so not all people (our normal-sized fingers are pointing at you, Mr Trump).
Still, progress is at last being made, slowly but surely.
There’s one industry, though, that has long regarded gender as a fluid construct, and has been patiently waiting for others to catch up: Theatre.
Lest we forget, way back in the days of Shakespeare, an Elizabethan system trenched in sexism saw male actors playing female roles which, legend has it, actually brought about the first ever use of the word “DRAG” (to mean “Dressed As A Girl”). Not to mention the recurrent theme of cross-dressing and gender ambiguity within Shakespeare’s plays themselves.
Thankfully those days of restrictions on female actors are long gone. But what has endured in much of today’s theatre is the simple and important idea that gender norms are nothing more than constructs. Masks. Playthings for any actor worth their salt.
Just look at some of the West End’s biggest hits. Whether it’s Craig Revel Horwood taking on Miss Hannigan (absolutely genius casting, by the way), Denise Gough’s brilliant portrayal of Martin Heller in Angels In America, or basically anyone who’s ever played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, even the big names know that gender knows no rules.
And, of course, the tradition of blurring gender lines in Shakespeare has endured. Tamsin Grieg’s Malvolio, Mark Rylance’s Olivia, and Phyllida Lloyd’s female production of Julius Caesar all come to mind.
Gender-play isn’t just happening on West End stages, though. Far from it. As one might expect, it’s in the smaller, more avant-garde theatres that the real games begin.
One such venue is the Camden People’s Theatre.
Hiding in a quiet corner behind London Euston, you’d be forgiven for not noticing Camden People’s Theatre. But once inside the cosy foyer, you can’t help but take note. CPT is fast becoming a trailblazer of London’s Fringe Theatre scene, and their autumn programme, entitled Come As You Are, is no exception.
Featuring “a host of gender-anarchists”, the CAYA lineup boasts such intriguing titles as Salvation: Shamanic Striptease, Non-Binary Electro Hour, and (my personal favourite), If Britney Could Get Through 2007 We Can Get Through This.
At CPT, I was lucky enough to catch THE FEMS, a self-proclaimed “gaggle of garish, lipstick-smeared flamingo monsters”, who literally exploded onto the stage at the opening of their riotous show. What followed was a hilarious and ultimately moving piece of theatre with a very clear goal. THE FEMS declare early on: “It’s our job to provoke you”. Despite their childlike playfulness, this lot are not messing around.
One scene depicted and ridiculed the familiar war waged between football and fabulousness on the school playground battlefield. But it was not only traditional gender norms which were ripped apart by THE FEMS. Academic discussion on the theme – specifically an eye-rollingly out of touch Wikipedia definition – was also bitten off, chewed up and spat out. Religious fetishism, beauty pageants and Madonna’s Vogue also had their turn, before the show reached a hugely satisfying and harrowing finale depicting a live “execution”. No spoilers, but actor Charly Flyte’s fantastic final moments will be hard to forget.
We definitely recommend you catch THE FEMS at their next incarnation at on 27 October. Even if you’re already on board with gender-fuckery, this wild troupe promise “to throw up a few things (perhaps literally?) to make you think, feel and laugh”. I guarantee they will.
Also part of Come As You Are at CPT was the wonderful Man Up!, written by and starring Camilla Harding and Alexandra Sinclair, an eloquent and captivating double act. More subtle than THE FEMS, this piece was expertly put together and wonderfully acted. With themes ranging from hairstyles to hair removal, fashion crises to pubescent growth, eating disorders to self defence, Man Up! proudly and unashamedly questioned any assumptions we audience may have had about gendered stereotypes. Using costume and make up to visually enhance this (in such genius style as would make Shakespeare himself proud), and with a highly effective final sequence, this show more than deserves a second incarnation. Watch this space.
Speaking of Shakespeare, it seems only fair we return to his legacy to the world of gender-bending: the art of Drag. Following the recent explosion of drag culture into the mainstream (thanks Ru), it was perhaps inevitable that the world of theatre would follow. Drag in theatre is nothing new – as any Pantomime enthusiast will testify – but we’re now witnessing something quite different.
Imagine a Grande Dame of the theatre, somewhere between Sally Bowles and Patti Lupone. From 1930 Berlin to the bright lights of Broadway, this international shapeshifter and siren of the stage invites the audience to witness the journey of her life. Her name? Frau Welt.
Having premiered in 2015 at Hackney Showroom’s Queer Show & Tell festival, Frau Welt returns to the venue next month. The artists behind this genre-busting solo show are co-writers Peter Clements and Oliver Dawe, with Clements himself playing the magnificent title character.
Frau Welt exemplifies of a new style of performance art. The show offers its audience something unexpected, by blending the traditions of drag and cabaret with a narrative-led drama. This isn’t just drag (though of course it is); and this isn’t just theatre (though of course it’s that too). Frau Welt represents a fresh and fascinating fusion of genres, something which is becoming increasingly popular in today’s theatre.
It really is no coincidence that the interpretations of both “gender” and “genre” have been flung wide open. After all, the two words have the exact same linguistic origin. As following traditional gender constructs becomes a thing of the past, so too does the expectation to follow any one singular creative genre. Let 2017 truly be the year that champions those who throw out the rule book on stage, and those who continue to play and push boundaries in the performance of life.
Camden People’s Theatre CAYA Festival continues until 30 September, details here. THE FEMS will transfer to Hackney Attic for one night on 27 October, details here. You can catch Frau Welt at the Hackney Showroom 4-21 October, details here.
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