Subject matters

31 August 2019

Barry’s story-telling has only become sharper – and muddier – since NSDF, says Joseph Winer

I’ve had a really exciting journey with Shrinking Violet’s production of Barry. The show was selected for this year’s National Student Drama Festival as a work-in-progress to be developed throughout the week with support of the festival’s visiting artists. By luck of the draw, I was offered the chance to sit in on some of their rehearsals as an embedded critic. I wrote a piece on this experience which can be read here. Four months on and I am delighted that the company have let me in to write a bit more about their final show.

The idea of the show came from an interest to make something that celebrated the women of Edinburgh University. They discovered Dr. James Barry, credited as the first woman to graduate from the institution. What they found out shortly after was that this is actually not true. Barry has been misinterpreted as a woman in much of the historical documentation available, but was actually a trans-man. What ensues in this attempt to make a show about Barry’s story is a meta-theatrical exploration of a messy and complicated recording of history, as the company try and at times struggle to bring justice to Barry’s legacy.

At the opening, we’re told that this is not the show that was intended to be made. But they’ve made it anyway. The cast don’t shy away from the difficulties they’ve had with tackling the complexities of this process. And this is honestly totally endearing. In an industry where authenticity is faked most of the time, it’s refreshing to see something so self-critical. Other companies might’ve dropped a project like this months ago – and there is definitely an argument for this, which I’ll come to shortly – but Shrinking Violet felt passionate enough about Barry’s story that they’ve gone ahead with it despite some hiccups along the way. They’ve positioned the worth of Barry’s legacy above their own reputation as theatre-makers, and they’re not afraid to let us know that. This isn’t the show they were planning on making. They interrupt themselves following some early-on scenes to stop the action and admit that something’s not quite working. What results is not only a celebration of Barry’s existence, but a documentation of the devising process itself.

Now, the argument for dropping a project like this. At the point they realise that they’re re-creating a trans-narrative, they realise an absolute need to include trans performer(s) in the show. There’s five of them so they think that three ought to make things even. This is totally self-aware. A statement on the act of excluding the relevant voices in the room that is all-too-common. After holding auditions, they’re joined by Ryan Avery-Long. One trans-person. Should five cis-women be making this work, or should the project have been dropped or facilitated in a different way when the realised what they would need to do? Can Barry be claimed by both women and trans people as a part of their respective histories?

This all leads back to a question that kept coming up at NSDF this year. Who has a right to tell other people’s stories? In Barry, Shrinking Violet literally put other people’s words into their mouths, lip-syncing verbatim to interview recordings around the subject. Skirts are held in the air, a gendered-clothing item lingering above the subject matter. There’s a temporariness of masculinity explored through costume and discussion of dress sense. The show has become a collage of segments, an interpretation of events based on limited information. This seems fitting to the post-truth era, as we try to make sense of a scattering of so-called “facts” – digesting the minimal documentation available – and misrepresent the truth in the process of regurgitation. Moreover, Barry attempts to tell a story from the past through contemporary understandings of gender. It asks how our understanding of social issues today can be applied to our perception of history. They accept the fact that this is no simple task, and battle with its challenges through the show.

As the show comes to a close, Ryan is stood centre stage and a final projection of light flashes across the performance space. Does anyone have a right to tell a story that’s not theirs? I hope not. There wouldn’t be much theatre otherwise. But we need to do so with thoughtfulness and respect and human decency. This is what Shrinking Violet achieve. Ryan takes the final spotlight. He needs to and should be at the heart of this work.


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