BWW Reviews: DRAG KING RICHARD III, Riverside Studios, July 31 2014
Deep in the Deep South of the USA, Laurie doesn't wear gingham dresses, doesn't dream of going to the prom with the captain of the football team, doesn't really do anything much. Except spend time with her best friend, who also finds herself drawn to fellow women, even if she can rock the lipstick and heels look now and again. When Laurie announces that she intends to become Laurence, the friendship, indeed their lives, fracture and new accommodations must be made.
Drag King Richard III (continuing at the Riverside Studios until 3 August) explores the impact of transitioning from female to male for both the woman/man and her friends and family. The play weaves in speeches from Richard III to illustrate how Laurie is feeling:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, Nor made to court an amorous looking glass; I, that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them
The device works well in capturing Laurie's version of body dysmorphia, the fact that she is a man in every respect but her outward appearance. There's room, as yet not fully explored in the production, for Laurie to embrace more of Richard's ruthlessness, his humour and his hubris. It is, as ever, a tremendous treat to hear Shakespeare's poetry spoken so beautifully.
This play would make demands on its actors in any circumstances, but veers close to the impossible with just the three days rehearsal afforded to Anne Zander and Bonnie Adair. Had we not been told that in a pre-show announcement, we would never have known, so strong are the performances. Zander channels Berlin period Bowie, the Thin White Duke suits and self-loathing evident in her scowls, her aggression and her insecurity. Adair works wonderfully well with her rapidly evolving friend, struggling to understand her motives, but supportive - if she is allowed. She adopts a Madonnaish look (appropriately from the Papa Don't Preach era) adding to the 80s feel that runs through the play.
And that's the work's biggest problem - it feels very historical. Though life is hardly a bed of roses for the LGBT+ community, the routine ostracising from family and society is becoming an exception as much as a rule, as both the cultural and legal landscape have changed beyond recognition in the last decade. There's little of the joy so evident when speaking to people who have been able to marry at last, or identify exactly how they want to live their lives and then live them. It's grimmer than it can be - or should be - its serious earnestness overshadowing the playfulness that emerges in a sexually charged tango and in some witty asides.
Nevertheless, the play captures an important moment in the acceptance of LGBT+ people into "mainstream" society. It shows that it was not so long ago, nor so far away, when coming out was an enormously difficult step to take. It also reminds us that in many parts of the world, it still is.