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.
Trans Pennine (Edinburgh Festival)
A gentle, generally light, small-scale drama, Trans Pennine explores family life after the death of the wife/mother, and a suppressed secret that finally comes out. Of the three-person cast, an embittered husband/father is required to confront a past he'd rather not remember, with the aid of his grown-up son and daughter. What he'd thought was evidence of an affair between the wife and another man from years/decades ago, turns out to be the suppressed evidence of his son's expression to be female.
I found this coming-out drama thought-provoking, though perhaps not for the reasons the writers and actors intended. Mainly, I was preoccupied by the cisgender male playing the son who comes out at the end as 'Amy.' I'm glad he didn't try to dress as a woman – at the very end his sister places a colourful scarf around his shoulders, to signify his coming out. He remained, though, even with scarf, what he had been throughout: a cisgender man, blokeish in clothing and manner. And I kept thinking through the final ten minutes as the twist became apparent: Please don't put on a dress . . . Please don't put on a dress . . .
My feelings of ambivalence come here: there really was nothing 'trans' about him in body language or demeanour throughout the play, no evidence of gender-conflict. Should there have been? For me, this was a weakness of the play simply from a dramatic point of view, the fact that the 'trans' character had to say they were trans, rather than being able to show it. Show, don't tell: the golden rule of storytelling that this production failed, in turn appropriating transgender identity as a kind of final 'twist.' At no point did I think: this person could be trans, I'd like to see this person transform; I'd like to see what this person looks like, as a woman. Shouldn't there be clues in their appearance, their manner, their face? That this person has the potential to transform, that they're repressing this? The actor in this play expressed, embodied, and inhabited, no such potential.
Arguably, this awkwardness within the play highlights the danger of using cisgender actors for transgender roles: they fail to embody the gender conflict of a trans person in the closet. A cisgender woman playing a trans woman is usually too much at ease, simply looks too much a person born female. A cisgender man playing a trans woman, on the other hand, well, I liked Jared Leto's performance in Dallas Buyers' Club, but Leto was able to portray a gaunt femininity in a way most cisgender men could never affect.
Further issues emerge, however, of a more personal nature: was my discomfort with the idea of the actor 'dragging' up, similar to the feelings of friends and family who also couldn't bear to look at me as Gina? Did they also think 'Please don't put on a dress . . . Please don't put on a dress . . .' Did this play give me the perspective of everyone who finds transgender women ungainly and ugly, a thing better not seen? Did I become the kind of snob or chauvinist I've resented elsewhere in my life? And a bigger issue: perhaps some people who come out as trans will, through no fault of their own, physically continue to signify their previous gender. God knows my own transgender appearance falls within the more androgynous part of the transgender spectrum. Perhaps it takes years to escape signifying that bloke anymore, or maybe it's a curse to carry with you forever. Perhaps I just need to be more accepting?But still, here are my final thoughts, expressed in words of reservation: trans women aren't blokes with a secret. Trans Pennine projected this uneasy message and I find it uncomfortable as a trans woman, and unsatisfying as a member of the audience. Yet this play also succeeded, whether intentionally or otherwise, as a work of art, in provoking some deep-seated, potentially unresolved, self-reflection on what it is to inhabit the state of being trans, as well as the enduring importance of physicality when depicting the trans experience.
(Image from: https://britishtheatre.com/review-trans-pennine-edinburgh-fringe/)