Opening up

19 April 2019

 Rotterdam is outdated for 2019, says Joseph Winer

Sometimes the opening of a play really sets the stakes. Rotterdam begins with our two leads sitting down not doing much. Fiona (Lara Cowler) sits at a very plain sofa reading a book. Alice (Maddy Strauss) is trying to draft an email to her parents to finally come out to them. The conversation goes around in circles for a bit. And then out of nowhere, Fiona makes the revelation: he's trans. This becomes the issue that the play goes on to explore.

Strauss and Cowler forget their audience at first. It takes a little bit of time for them to warm up to the text, which becomes embodied with much more success in the second act. The relationship builds and their on-stage chemistry becomes electric. In a climactic fight scene towards the end of the play, Strauss bursts through with the crux of the issue, yelling 'I’m gay'. This is why the relationship won’t work anymore. The conflict is properly exposed. Her breath increases as she’s stood in sadness and anger at the situation. It’s a compelling performance and delivered with nuanced attention to detail. At other times, her hands scratch against her legs, or clench together as she’s feeling trapped.

Unfortunately, the script examines the central issue by talking about nothing but the issue. Fiona, now identifying as Adrian, tells us that "twenty-four hours ago I thought I was just gay". His realisation seems to come out of nowhere. I just don’t believe that these characters exist outside of this story. They are completely defined by their gender or sexuality.

The first act feels like a listing of everything the playwright has learnt about transgender identities, and the information is exposed to the audience through a dialogue of questions which feel forced, and answers which feel googled. The play was first performed in 2015, so perhaps this felt more necessary then, but in the last few years the public discourse on gender identity has evolved so rapidly that the text already feels dated. And although we get a bit of family context from Josh – played with a warming comic relief by Miguel Barrulas, and a sub-plot of a near-affair with work colleague Lelani, played by Megan Peace, these characters just distract from the central focus. The play as a two-hander between Alice and Adrian would be much more engaging and would prevent the clunky scene changes which happen in slow blackouts. I would’ve quite enjoyed watching the work of the stage crew during the interval scene change. Alas, we were all instructed to leave.

I think sometimes the best plays are the ones that make the point without ever explicitly talking about it. The scene where Alice is trying to smoke is the most successful at this. We’re exposed to vulnerability, naivety and someone who doesn’t know what to do in a new situation. Moments like these are where the play is at its strongest. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these for the actors to work with and I ultimately find the decision to re-stage this now an odd one.

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney