Inside the Trans Beauty & Integrity of Jon Brittain’s ‘Rotterdam’

Jon Brittain’s play Rotterdam returns to London this June after winning the award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre at this year’s Olivier awards. Jon describes it as “a bittersweet love story about gender, sexuality and being a long way from home,” we spoke to the playwright Jon Brittain about his groundbreaking work.

The production itself explores the themes of gender in a sensitive and intimate way, yet with a strong sense of humor. It tells the story of Alice who is struggling to come out to her parents, and her girlfriend Fiona that reveals to Alice that she has always identified as a man and wants to continue to live her life as Adrian.

Provoking many questions about sexuality, Jon said that he wanted to tell the story of this couple in order to provide a “jumping off point for people to ask all sorts of question.” His initial attraction to the idea spurred from when he was at university. He said: “A couple of my friends started transitioning and it struck me that I hadn’t seen many trans characters in film, theatre or TV. I wasn’t a writer then so there wasn’t anything I could do about it, but when I started a few years later I did have a thought in the back of my mind that it would be great to tell a story that spoke in some way to my friends’ experiences.”

This then evoked Jon to question sexuality, he explained: “I thought about whether it is fluid or fixed, and how important it is to our sense of who we are. At some point those ideas collided, and the characters of Adrian and Alice popped into my head.”

It’s a highly relevant production that strikes a chord with the LGBTQIA+ community. “Having a show in the West End where one of the lead characters is trans and two of the others are gay is important,” Jon explained. “However, it is also important that we use any platform the play gives us to help promote the work of others. Whether that’s theatre or film made by trans artists, community work such as that done by Gendered Intelligence, or campaigns for trans rights both here and abroad.”

It has a strong message to accept people for who they are, but Jon really hopes that people take all sorts of things away from it. He explained: “I certainly didn’t write it wanting to impart a great lesson on the audience. I wrote it hoping that it would allow them time and space to think about things for themselves.”

Unless you’ve gone through something, or know someone who has gone through something, it can be harder to empathise because you can’t imagine what it’s like. This is not the definitive story about someone transitioning, there are already many others and hopefully there will be more – I’m not saying that this play is suddenly going to turn everyone who watches it into an empathy machine, but hopefully it will allow them to start thinking about what it might be like to go through something like this.”

Despite addressing such important themes, Jon has approached them in a touching yet comedic way. “Everything I’ve ever written has had some kind of comedic angle to it, so it wasn’t necessarily a choice to make it a comedy – that’s just how I like to write. Having said that, the play does go to some very dramatic places and the performances really pack a punch, and I think the jokes allow that to happen.

“Comedy is a really important part of letting the audience into the world of the play. When you’re laughing, you’re more relaxed, and more open to an emotional experience. I think when these characters make you laugh, it makes you care about them.”

Jon invested in a lot of research in order to lift the play off the ground, he started by having conversations with people about their experiences with sexuality and then immersed himself in blogs, vlogs, books and articles written by trans people. He said: “When I’d completed a couple of drafts I met some very generous people through Gendered Intelligence who gave me notes on the script, which led to more rewrites.”

Named Rotterdam, it is set inside the city in the Netherlands because Jon had a personal experience with the city himself. “One Summer I had a terrible job working in a call centre in Rotterdam and I’m afraid it soured me to the whole city. I don’t know exactly how I got the idea to base the play over there, but as soon as I had thought of it, it just seemed to make sense,” he said. “The characters are isolated from any support base or friends, they are alone in a city where they don’t quite fit in, and the prospect of returning home is only a ferry ride away.”

It’s a thought-provoking narrative told through an innovative way that has a powerful message at it’s core. “Obviously, we are not the first play about trans and gay characters, and we won’t be the last. Moving forward, representation is a key issue, and opportunities have to be created for LGBTQIA+ people to tell their own stories, and more visible platforms provided for those who are already doing so. Having said that, I think what Rotterdam brings is a humour and warmth to a story which could be told in a very po-faced manner,” Jon explained.

“The characters are human and they get things wrong, but no one dies and I think ultimately, the story is an optimistic one. And given what’s happening in the world today, I think we need a bit of optimism.”

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