Complex qualities

18 April 2019

Strong performances, but Marina Johnson wanted more from this story

I really wanted to like Rotterdam but I couldn’t bring myself to. It is a show about queer life for the inexperienced, cis individuals or people new to the idea of life beyond the gender binary. There is some truly terrible clunky exposition. It's not really a show for knowledgable queer individuals, or people looking for a trans narrative that is not about trauma. In the same way that individuals who struggle with their mental health like myself, may not want to watch another show about suicide, Rotterdam raises issues of socially created trans trauma. For those of us up for watching the show, we get a tragic love story.

The cast do their best with the script to bring these disaster lesbians to life. Maddy Strauss and Lara Cowler are an engaging couple, totally absorbing. They open with a beautiful sense of old married couple, which slowly and tragically slips away as they grow further apart. Lara Cowler as the impulsive and confident Adrian was heartbreakingly watchable as they navigated their transition and the complex societal pressures that came crashing down on them. It was one of the strongest performances I have seen this festival, but it couldn’t hold my attention enough to compete with the dragging transitions draining all that hard work away.

Megan Peace did her best with the character of Lelani, bringing a slick and stylish performance which veered from vibrating-jumpy-eagerness to ice-cold charm seamlessly and almost believably. Lelani seemed to have been written merely to add chaos and conflict to an already perfectly strong premise. Of course, the only other lesbian in the show would end up being a homewrecker, I’ve never seen that before. Let’s also have this woman who has been out for years commit the cardinal sin of outing someone to their parents, because that makes sense.

Things I am glad are dying in theatre:

  • Blackouts. All that emotional energy, pacing and atmosphere you just spent a scene building – just get rid of it, we don’t need it.
  • Long scene changes, that take forever to happen and add nothing of value to a scene. The audience can wait. Right? In darkness.
  • Unnecessarily large sets of locations that are merely a backdrop to the overall production and are never truly engaged with. I was just staring at the beige wall feeling sorry for whoever had to ship it from Nottingham.
  • Surprise projection. Ah yes, I can tell the scene has changed. That rooftop view is just so photorealistic.

The script may have been a radical show if performed in 2001. Not any more. The discourse is fast-moving and cutting edge has moved on. If this has been your introduction to the topic, I can heartily recommend Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. I also want to trouble the narrative about trans experiences always having to be trauma. So I’ll finish by listening to a trans perspective. This is a Facebook post from former editor at Fearlessly, Bonnie Aspinwall:

“When I first realised I'm trans and non-binary it felt strange because I didn't have the narrative of trauma that society had led me to assume I needed in order to be a legitimate trans person. I felt a little guilty, but also realised it's cishet oppression that makes us feel like transness and trauma must go hand in hand, and to reject the need for such a narrative was an act of radical self-love and radical queer rebellion.

For a long time my transness has felt so entirely my own, so personal, like the way I sing or the words I write. It is only lately that I have felt like people – WOMEN, self-proclaimed FEMINISTS no less – have walked into my home and taken this part of me and begun discussing and dissecting it. Deciding how much merit or validity there is to something that Is Not Theirs.

It has reached the point of women I have known since I was a child...telling me what gender I am, asking about my genitals. Women in the streets accusing me of supporting abuse of women for trying to explain that trans people just want to exist.

I now fear and doubt every gendered interaction (which, let's face it, is every interaction in our society), wondering if the invalidation I feel is the result of ignorance or malice. I simultaneously feel the need to preempt any assumptions to reduce the likelihood of invalidation, and yet also feel like doing so is putting a target on my own back – for trans people asking to be seen is asking to be challenged.

Congratulations to me I guess, looks like I have a trans trauma narrative now. Awesome.”

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney