You can tell at once that Peter Clements has been honing this character over the past few years. Frau Welt is executed precisely, the performance is tight, the gestures and facial expressions exquisite. Frau may be a large character but there is depth and pathos here. We laugh but we feel more than mirth.
From the moment of her entrance we are captured in her spell. Frau Welt tales the life story of a diva of the theatre (or tee-ay-ter, as Frau says it). Years in the Berliner Ensemble as Mother Courage and Brecht’s mistress; ambitions of Broadway stardom by way of a glomming friendship with one Angela Lansbury… it is also a tale of lost love and secrets. We are captivated, we are won.
Everything about this production is perfection. The sparseness of the stage and props. The deliciously and flawlessly chosen music (including my favourite Judy Garland song, ever), the costume and the wigs. Even though what they have chosen to dress her in must be hotter than hell under those lights.
When Frau Welt makes her entrance in the second act we are faced with a stunning vision, strutting towards us through smoke and techno. Looking spookily like Alla Nazimova in Camille, dressed in silver lurex, this is an image I won’t forget. When I think back on the great theatre I’ve seen in my life, this will be what I remember.
Hackney Showroom was a project launched on a mere 20k, a dream that became a reality of a space for collaboration, development and opportunity for performers and artists and community. It is glorious. Frau Welt is their first in-house production of a full piece of theatre and what a debut. All involved should be rightly proud of this gem. The new Big Space is wonderful. Stark yet welcoming, a classic non-proscenium stage. I fell in love with it at first site. And it’s perfect for such a piece; intimate, comfortable. There’s not a bad seat in the house.
Hackney Showroom have supported and presented countless queer performances and workshops in its short life. This is the kind of space we desperately need and deserve. Be sure to support them by attending performances and other events. You can even pledge donations if you want to contribute even more to this valuable piece of London arts and community life.
Oh. I knew we were in for a special treat with Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales because their last show, The Vaudevillians, was so bloody amazing. They work together flawlessly, their timing is impeccable, and they know how to pitch their laughs. And we, the audience, lap it up and beg for more. They are doing a Christmas show at Soho Theatre in London right now. Oh yes, I know, it’s still sodding November and so too early for a Xmas thing. But… this is pretty much an anti-Xmas show so if you are already gagging at this end of year nightmare being stuffed down our throats and dreading that enforced holiday or, like me, avoid it all together, this is actually our show.
After all, half of this double act is Jewish. This holiday is not for her. And Jinkx riffs on this immaculately throughout the show. Major Scales, a delightful foil for Jinkx, is as usual faultless in his craft.
Both Unwrapped and The Vaudevillians are shows that have been honed over time and so the fact that they are exquisitely perfect makes sense. But this is also because they are stunning performers who are at their absolute best doing cabaret in front of a devoted, lucky, lucky audience.
They’ve put on extra dates. Go see this. (I’ve got a massive crush on the pair of them, can you tell?)
Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales Unwrapped is on at The Soho Theatre, London until 10 December
Nando Messias’ powerful theatre piece The Sissy’s Progress drew on the artist’s own experience of a homophobic attack and was one of the most profound things I have ever seen. Stunning, emotive, challenging; Nando is a compelling performer producing essential queer work. His new show Shoot The Sissy continues to confront homophobic violence and living visibly queer. Corinna Tomrley spoke to him about the piece.
Your work is confrontational, beautiful, moving and empowering but you don’t shy away from the real lived pain of being queer in a homophobic world. Why do you think it is important to address queer violence through your art? Confrontation, beauty, emotion and empowerment are things I hope to evoke in an audience when creating work so I feel flattered to have you describe it like that. As a subject, queer violence is important but I don’t see addressing it as a choice. Dealing with it is, rather, a responsibility, a moral duty for me. That is not to say that speaking of violence is an easy endeavour. It isn’t. By no means. Looking at violence can be quite painful at times, especially when I am so deeply ensnared in its mechanisms. What moves me to develop new work is a sense that I have something to say about queer violence, perhaps some insider information that might give insight to others who, like me, are its captives or to those who are not necessarily targets of violence but who are, nevertheless, committed to fighting against it or ameliorating its destructive effects. Shying away from this lived pain is, again, not a choice. I feel lucky to have the creative and artistic tools that I have. They allow me to face the negative aspects of living as a queer person with enough critical distance to be able to transform them into something productive and, hopefully, even beautiful.
The Sissy’s Progress was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. With Shoot The Sissy you are further exploring the idea of the vulnerable queer body. Will we see The Sissy in more works in the future? I’m glad you enjoyed it! And, yes, Shoot the Sissy also explores the vulnerability of the queer body. Whereas in The Sissy’s Progress I was making a public statement about visibility and ownership of my own body by reclaiming my space on the streets, with Shoot the Sissy the mood is more introspective. It began with a series of questions: Am I a freak? What makes me a freak? What are the ideological similarities between ‘queer’ and ‘freak’? Can I use this alliance between queer and freak as a theatrical ruse to explore questions of vulnerability, visibility, ridicule, spectacle? Why do people stare at me? As a performer, do I like being stared at? Can I make it stop when it gets too much or too dangerous? I was aware that the freak show was a delicate subject so I approached it with caution. This I did by trying to remain true to my own story, hoping that what is deeply personal becomes, when placed in front of an audience, universal and therefore effective in ways that I cannot predict. Shoot the Sissy is the third in a series of performances with the word Sissy in the title. The first one was simply Sissy! (sic, with an exclamation mark, like a shouted insult). In it, I developed a duet in collaboration with Biño Sauitzvy where my effeminate body became even more so in contrast with his more masculine, muscular one. The second was The Sissy’s Progress, which you’ve seen and now we have Shoot the Sissy. My intention is to continue developing work based on the Sissy but of course my understanding of Sissy is also changing.
You’re not afraid to make the audience uncomfortable in presenting how it feels to live queer and visible in a hostile society. I kept expecting you to fight back in The Sissy’s Progress. It’s a very Brechtian approach not to allow the audience that catharsis, and therefore has its own active power, doesn’t it? I feel I would be doing myself a disservice if I held back on the representation of some of those issues. The point of the piece was to expose the daily abuse suffered by queer subjects. My efforts to go out onto the streets in a ball gown and with marching band in tow paid off in the end. The work activated the kind of dynamic I wanted the audience to witness. Various things were hurled at me during the parade section: from insults to threats to tins of energy drink. In a way, the performance simply framed what is already out there on the streets but remains hidden to most or unseen. I also wanted to avoid the ‘me against them’ discourse. This is perhaps why I chose not to fight back. I wanted the audience to find a resolution to this story for themselves without me steering their opinion in one direction. The hope is that the work then becomes multi-layered in meaning. I was also careful not to romanticise this terrible attack that happened to me by creating a happy ending narrative because, sadly, the reality is that it doesn’t always end well.
Who are some of your favourite sissies? NM: Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton, James Baldwin, Oliver Button…
I love the idea of the freak show element to Shoot The Sissy. We are enfreakened as ‘other’ by straight society, but to own ‘freak’ is very powerful. Will you play with this in the performance? Yes, I do. Shoot the Sissy was directly inspired by the sideshow attraction, Shoot the Freak, where a carnival barker invites passersby to shoot a human target by using paintball guns. I was also thrust into action by the Orlando shootings of June 2016, where 49 queer people lost their lives and another 53 were wounded in a mass terrorist attack/hate crime. I had just finished a tour of a piece that questioned the conditions under which queer people live when this happened. I felt that there was work yet to be done. In researching the subject of freak shows, I connected with this idea of a theatricalised, exaggerated version of difference that is presented to the audience. Freaks often invented a highly elaborate biography to heighten their otherness in the eyes of an audience. They used costumes, props, music and other theatrical elements to construct an artificial image. This created a context where real life and imagined life began to blur. All this artifice transformed their real bodies into a spectacle, an invitation for the audience to gaze. I wondered if the fascination to stare at the body of the other, which these shows promoted, was in certain ways a form of asserting one’s own ‘normality.’ Perhaps that is what is going on when I am stared at on the streets: men and women gawk, point at and ridicule me because that is their way of trying to prove to themselves that they are normal, cis-gendered and therefore not sissies like me.
I was anticipating very good things from Geist, Lover. You only have to watch some of the music videos to appreciate that as a postpunk performer, the creation ‘Alexander Geist’ is an amazing pop star. And the concept and the conceit… oh, I was very excited. And I was not disappointed. I just wanted more.
‘Alexander Geist’ is the fictional persona of genderqueer artist La JohnJoseph. From an undisclosed time (that feels very early 80s but seems to slip and slide around), perhaps from Berlin or perhaps from England, queer, marvelous, just… incredible… Alexander Geist is the ultimate star. A mask, a character, an image, a gesture. It is as if Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, Marc Almond, Arletty, early 80s Annie Lennox, Jacques Brel, Grace Jones, and Ute Lemper all merged into one, magnificent entity. Alexander Geist may be made up but they are as real as any superstar persona ever is.
La JohnJoseph is the consummate performer. You can tell that they have worked on every word, every gesture, every brush stroke of makeup, every single detail to make this immaculate creation just perfection. But although there is a chill about Alexander Geist, they are not cold, 2D or false. You feel the pull of this charisma – is it La JJ? Is it Geist seducing us? Is it both, Lover?
Geist, the show, ran for two nights at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London. One can only presume that this was a preliminary run ahead of something bigger later on. Because this show deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It is compelling, fun, and has twists coming out the hoo-hah. The only frustration is that I wanted whole songs, to watch a Geist concert in amongst the storyline. I understand very well why that could not be the case… but it just goes to show how complete a creature Geist is. And how wonderful the music is.
I will not give away any spoilers. The synopsis, on its surface, is simple – Geist is dead and a documentary maker seeks to uncover the truth of their demise. She has found the tapes of the last concert Alexander Geist performed before their tragic end and thinks she has discovered the secret behind that fateful night.
As magnetic and superb as La JJ is in the lead role, they are not the only actor in this play. We hear the voice of the documentary maker and see the projected interviews of a biography writer and the executrix of the Geist estate. And it is the latter who becomes a major character in this tale and the actor Fran Lima manages to draw our eyes away from La JohnJoseph as the story unfolds… no small feat, Lover.
When I was a baby feminist, baby queer doing A level Theatre Studies back in the late 80s, I devoured anything I could find on feminist and gay theatre. There’d been a lot happening in the previous two decades and a lot going on (just out of reach of my geographic restrictions) at the time. It was exciting; it was mind-blowing; it was inspirational. I’d always wanted to be an actress but up to that point my ambition was to be on Dynasty. When I read about political theatre, my thespian world made a very different sort of perfect sense.
It was through my insatiable research into feminist/gay theatre that I first heard of Split Britches. To be honest, I pretty much fell in love with Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw the more I read. I’ve always liked my art and activism to be as full of F.U.N. as it can be and Split Britches were taking the complexities and controversies of gender and sexuality politics and making them accessible to a broad audience. La SWOON, darlings.
In recent years Lois Weaver has been teaching at Queen Mary University, crowd sourcing for a book on her life’s work and living her alter-ego, the most GLORIOUSLY named Tammy WhyNot? I keep hearing of these endevours and my love just grows and grows and grows…
When I found out that Split Britches are to be performing a Retro(per)spective of their decades worth of fabulous work as part of the SACRED festival, well darlings, I just plotzed. For ONE NIGHT ONLY we get to experience these incredible, essential and marvellous performers at The Chelsea Theatre, London.
Astonishingly, there are still a few tickets available. Snaffle them while you CAN, honies! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something very, very special.