The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Testosterone (Drama, Edinburgh Festival) 12.08.17
It started well, a personal story by Kit Redstone about his trans journey to manhood. Then a moment came when one of his co-actors donned a blond wig, corset accompanied with tassles, sparkling underwear and black stilettos, in a narrow, sexualized expression of male-to-female gender crossing that, perhaps, was meant to be amusing.
Not expecting this kind of sexualized she-male, I found myself suddenly unable to look up, ashamed by their take on female transgendering. For a few minutes, I shook, felt nauseous, and suppressed an urge to let tears fall. The drag act continued, posing, performing ultra-feminine, and remained in this guise for the reminder of the play. I remained seated in the audience, feeling uncomfortable as a trans woman desperate to fit in, confronted with trans as sexualized transvestite exhibition.
I still wonder now why I found it so distressing. I remember I'd entered the theatre expecting a nuanced, personal story that shed light on the experience of being trans, from a trans male point of view. But writing this, thirty minutes after the show, I feel tricked into watching a play that – from a trans female perspective – struck me as transgender from the 1970s, a John Waters/Divine conception of the grotesque, of a bloke doing caricature of extreme femininity. It's the kind of trans woman that radical feminists have warned against for four decades, the kind I hoped had been consigned to a previous age. This is not what I am. Why, I wanted to ask, are you doing this? Should I just laugh along? Am I the same jarring exhibition?
Yet it's not the only reason I feel something was off with this production. Of the experience of one born female transitioning into the world of men, the drama conjures up exaggerated scenes of the male dressing room and watching/playing football that I don't recognize from my own past. In turn this play sheds nothing on what it is to be a man either, and so in turn, it reveals Kit Redstone's narrative as being one played for the gallery, of what might seem a funny idea, rather than one that has any connection to reality.
To conclude, I know I'll always take a risk in entering a theatre or cinema to watch something about being trans. Testosterone's portrayal of an overtly masculinized world of men, and of exaggerated she-males, has shaken my faith in going to any more theatre claiming to be about trans identity. I'm sure I will recover, but Testosterone is one of the most distressing things I've watched, not only unenlightening, but also slightly shaming, at least in the effect it had on me.
Written the following morning 13.08.17
I knew after I wrote the piece above that I wanted to re-visit this review. I felt shaken yesterday, partly by the show itself, but also by my own hatchet-job, with anger fuelling words to an extreme that isn't me - the more so as I'd been so excited to watch something about the trans experience. But not for the first time, yesterday's experience proves that shows about being trans aren't necessarily representative of being trans as I've experienced it (eg the movie The Danish Girl), and things which aren't directly about trans, like the Chilean movie Neruda, about living life as art in spite of all the setbacks, can touch me profoundly in terms of my own experience.
So to return to yesterday's show Testosterone, there were fleeting moments that I liked. In the opening section, the protagonist asks whether identity influences experience, or vice versa, and this is a huge question concerning trans identity. But the protagonist never pursues it. Later, an archetypal Man sneers at the audience about how he enjoys treating women badly, and how women keep being drawn to him, have posters on walls of his kind of man, and so the bad behaviour is given license. Again, I thought this was the beginning of a brave and dark exploration of a complex subject, but it peters out. What we got in much larger, repetitive portions were clichés about the hyper-masculinity of the male changing room, which is something I never experienced in my male adulthood. It was played for laughs, but it didn't shed a light on anything, except to confirm a binary separation between male and female more pronounced in fiction than in reality.I think, therefore, that this too is what disappoints me in hindsight. Testosterone is a play that briefly asks some good questions, but never explores them. Instead, it fills its time with gender gags that we've seen before and isn't representative of anything except perhaps Kit Redstone's own understandable insecurities about trying to fit in as a man. In this respect, perhaps we got to see the unconscious mind of a transitioning trans man, but we never went beyond this into actual realism and the contrast that clarified it. A missed opportunity, then, and as for the female-to-male drag, a distasteful addition that adversely affected the second half of the play.