Would You Change is the second Bewilderbeastly Productions show I’ve seen recently and it’s my favourite of the two.
In June, we reviewed Rylan Cavell’s ode to the British science fiction of the 60s, 70s and 80s, Rehearsal Space. Rehearsal Space was a fun jaunt through the green rooms of naff TV shows and science fiction conventions. Earlier this month we caught Would You Change?, a more serious affair, although not without its own endearing humour.
The premise is simple: four great figures from queer history meet in a waiting room to a non-religious afterlife. Quentin Crisp, Harvey Milk and Gladys Bentley represent the LGBT+ struggle of the 20th Century, while Sappho represents an earlier time, before the concepts of ‘homosexuality’ or even ‘queer’ existed.
Each character is given a box containing all the strands and connections they made during their lives. Each web of influence is the sum total of their presence on Earth. And each of them is given a proposition: would you change one thing? One strand can be cut or moved, one moment in each life changed, and then the world will reshape itself around that decision.
It’s not, of course, an entirely original concept – nor is the waiting room setting – but it’s a perfectly functional framework from which the writer (Rylan Cavell, again) can hang his characters. It’s the characters themselves that are the most interesting thing about this play, anyway – which is just as well, as the tech is minimal and the set almost nonexistent in the very best DIY fashion.
As this was the first run of a fringe show from a small theatre company, the expectation is that this, although stage-ready, is the first incarnation of something that will probably evolve and become bigger as the material is tested and the actors find their feet. From this early version of the play, there is much that should be commended and a promise of something rather spectacular to come.
Nigel Anderson plays Quentin Crisp as if he was born for the part. Save the fact that Anderson himself is much taller than Crisp was, his mannerisms and speech are the most convincing in the play. Crisp’s lines are, literally, his own – mostly coming from the reams of witty comments, platitudes and aphorisms Crisp himself said or wrote in his lifetime. That makes Cavell’s job easier, but places a certain burden on Anderson, who has to be as big a character as Crisp himself, and must avoid the shadow of John Hurt’s own iconic portrayal of the character. Anderson manages superbly despite the weight of anticipation, and creates a very satisfying Crisp.
Crisp’s lines shine brightest, which is entirely expected, and this poses an interesting dilemma – will the other characters have the same luminescence? Thankfully, the character of Gladys Bentley provides something of a counterweight to Crisp, giving just enough balance to stop the show becoming all about Crisp. Between them, they are the most memorable characters.
The success of Bentley as a character is largely due to the actor behind her – the charismatic and imposing Rebecca Swarray of Young Enigma. Swarray’s Bentley is proud, hurt and moody, but with some great moments of humour and a powerful presence. I felt, though, that I wanted to see Bentley sing or otherwise delve into her musicality. Crisp’s trademark wit was there, so it would seem only fair to let the character shine a little more by showcasing Bentley’s prowess. Perhaps, in a longer format, this might be possible.
Sappho, too, has a wealth of talent that her character could draw from more and which would allow her dialogue to zing as much as Crisp’s. The difficulty, I guess, is that with so little of her poetry surviving, it’s not as easy to draw upon her actual words as it is to draw upon Crisp’s. Writing new material that would carry the lyricism of Sappho’s own work would be difficult and a great feat in itself, but a few scattered moments of poetry (perhaps written in the Sapphic verse form) might go a long way. Although it should be noted that many contemporary poets have attempted to capture the rhythm and spirit of Sappho’s words in some quite colourful and convincing translations – which perhaps might provide useful and more accessible source material for the writer and performer in future versions of the play.
Sappho largely plays the philosopher. She asks plenty of questions, which leads into lots of explanations of the setting’s metaphysics and science fictional rules. To be brutally honest, these are probably the elements the audience cares the least about. It would be enough to know that the characters could change one thing in their past lives, without then explaining the bureaucracy behind such a possibility, and that would allow for more time exploring character. For this reason, parts of the second act become weighted with what writing tutors refer to as ‘info-dumps’. The audience already knows what’s going on, and the writer should put a little more trust in them. The world-building sometimes intrudes a little to much into the foreground, when it should keep quiet and sit at the back.
Harvey Milk was an interesting character. His conflict – whether to save his lover or to allow his legacy to remain intact as a rallying call for LGBT+ people to come – is an intriguing one, and one audiences will find easy to relate to. Similarly, Bentley’s decision – to stay with the woman she loved in the face of societal pressure – was more affecting because of that. Sappho and Crisp had less emotive reasons for perhaps wanting to change their pasts – and as such, it’s really no surprise they make the decisions they do.
Tint, the metaphysical civil servants who run around and sort out the admin created by humanity, are at times entertaining, but are the primary mechanism for many of the info-dumps that bloat the show. They do have some genuine moments of humour, however, and the decision to split what is effectively one character into two is a sound one – creating a disquieting aura of the uncanny.
The set and movement is limited – but that’s okay. That the show is performed in a venue in the heart of the Village, where complaints are often levelled that too much of the focus is on drinking, it’s nice that spaces like Taurus’ can be used to bring the community together in other ways.
I look forward to seeing Would You Change? in new settings. This play has the potential to be a really important piece of queer theatre for decades to come.
Visit the Bewilderbeastly Productions website for more information.
Images courtesy of Michael Thompson.