Photo: Sam Danson in BI-TOPIA. Credit: Jason Lock.
The opening night of Pride in Trafford, a four-day celebration of LGBT+ life, culture and art, delivered two brilliant performances at Sale’s Waterside centre that both explored the destructive power of shame on individuals coming to terms with their sexuality.
First up, The Chosen Haram, a powerful piece that combined theatre and circus in a story dealing with themes of faith, desire and addiction. Developed by Sadiq Ali, along with fellow performer Hauk Pattison, the story centred on a Muslim man’s sexual and social awakening when he meets someone through a dating app.
Ali’s character struggles to free himself from the shackles his religion has bestowed upon him – “haram” means forbidden by Islamic law. While he finds joyful release through his sexually charged relationship with Pattison’s character, the use of drink and especially drugs to escape sees him quickly tumble down a path of self-destruction with tragic consequences.
Performed with next to no dialogue and to a searing soundtrack, Ali and Pattison conveyed the (literal) highs and lows of their characters’ relationship from awkward first meeting through to wild, drug fuelled sex with carefully choreographed movement and nuanced performances.
Their on-stage chemistry excited and enthralled from the off. These two are not just great acrobats, but fantastic actors as well, able to convey feelings of desire, rage and despair through movement and looks alone.
Central to the set were a pair of Chinese poles which sprouted up from the stage upon which Ali and Pattison climbed, swung, danced and slid all with breath taking grace and precision. Off to one side, a more traditional set represented Pattison’s messy apartment.
There were some playful uses of this set that occurred throughout the hour-long show which featured the biggest line of cocaine you’re ever likely to see on stage (don’t fret – it was actually shredded paper).
The performance was based on a combination of Ali’s personal experience, and interviews with LGBT+ people who identify as either practicing or former Muslims.
In turns playful, funny, moving, challenging and downright erotic, this clever exploration of faith and desire was made all the more poignant by the fact that, as Ali revealed in an emotional address to the audience after the show, a close friend of his had recently died from an overdose.
Almost immediately after The Chosen Haram, was the premiere of BI-TOPIA, a one man play written and performed by Sam Danson. This semi-autobiographical piece saw Danson pretty much play himself, depicting his journey from sexually awkward kid to sexually awkward adult with great humour and honesty.
Sam has a youthful crush on his male best friend that leads to a comical encounter in a toilet cubicle, but he feels conflicted by the expectations of his working class, male-dominated family, in which feelings of anything remotely “gay” have to be fought off.
War imagery abounds in this coming of age tale. The playful use of toy guns and war movie references work well in detailing the constraints that traditional ideas of masculinity can place upon someone who feels different from what they are told “real men” should be.
Danson was fantastic, his performance naturalistic and authentic, moving and funny. Taking place as it did in the Waterside’s compact Chambers Room, which has no stage as such, the set suffered a little in that it was hard (indeed impossible if you weren’t on the front row) to see the clever use of bricks and other objects that perhaps represented the wall Danson’s character was slowly breaking down as the play progressed.
The play also suffered sightly by coming so quickly after the sexually charged and visceral earlier performance. This was a far more gently told story, but no less important. It could also be argued that BI-TOPIA didn’t quite get under the skin of the topic it set out to explore.
Sam’s experiences as a young man – questioning and at first denying his sexuality – is a common enough tale that many people who aren’t 100 percent straight will identify with it.
But the discrimination that bisexual people sometimes face from both the straight and the gay community remained largely unexplored in the play.
Where the play did succeed, though, was in exploring toxic masculinity and mental health in young men, a topic that needs as much exposure as it can get.
BI-TOPIA and Pride in Trafford continue at Sale Waterside until Saturday 20 May 2023. See prideintrafford.org for more details.