Transpose: Barbican is now in its second year as an event for transgender performers to find and express their own voices and experiences. The evening offers a series of monologues, poetry readings, songs and operatic arias which allow the participants to find vehicles for their own stories, free from any external labelling as victims, social outsiders or unchosen subjects of humour. The ninety-minute sequence thus offers valuable opportunities for creative people to shape transgender artistic priorities before a sympathetic audience; but over above that worthy goal the evening more than justified itself on artistic terms, with several of the items transcending any niche label to simply offer artistic engagement and achievement of real quality without any qualifications.
CN Lester curates the evening and appears at intervals as singer, pianist and MC, dressed for the most part in white-tie and tails that specifically evoke Marlene Dietrich. Their role is unobtrusive but crucial in providing the links and transitions between the different moods of pathos, humour and feisty, wry individuality that the individual stories evoke and in breaking down the boundaries between performers and audience.
Apart from a piano and a glitter ball the stage is bare. The piano comes into its own mainly in combination with the contribution of Alexandra Bork, who delivers a broad palette of operatic repertory, accompanied by Nicholas Bonadies. Their costumes and his clown’s white-face amplify the moods of the pieces which are delivered with great expressive flair and sensitivity. Perhaps the pick of them all was a delicate yet passionate performance of the ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Travis Alabanza delivered a section from their recent book Before I Step Outside (you love me) which held attention with great hieratic intensity and richly evocative language. However the use of a split voice to evoke split personality and the ‘constant obstacle course’ of their life became tiresome and grating to listen to after a while and distracted attention from the quality of the linguistic detail in the text.
Most remarkable though were the several interventions by poet Jamie Hale whose full-on engagement with the daily meaning of what it is to be disabled, queer and trans both commanded our attention and found form in writing of exquisite delicacy and linguistic precision. There could not be a sharper contrast between their crude T-shirt slogan ‘Piss on Pity’, and the incisive verbal choices and elegant switches of rhythm in poetry and prose that followed. This is writing of the highest quality, finding fresh language and new approaches to evoke the ‘permanent winter of the body’ that disability appears to bring with it, and the blend of defiance and acceptance that the writer has developed in the face of impairment and gender dysphoria.
Subjects such as wheel chair (in)accessibility and disabled sex do not immediately lend themselves to poetry, but Hale finds a tone that is both angry and funny at the same time with which to celebrate the way in the disabled can and must participate actively in their lives rather than accepting the role of passive object.
Ranging beyond personal experience to explore broader themes, Hale developed a truly insightful commentary on how the use of the passive voice in rape descriptions exculpates the perpetrator and slyly devalues the victim. While in his celebration of the life of the Irish giant Charles Byrne he found a powerful symbol of how even in death the outsider can still be denied dignity. Above all it is their sensitivity to the use and abuse of language that stands out as exceptional in choice and treatment of theme.
Perhaps the most important function of this evening lay in making the well-meaning audience uncomfortable and ultimately better informed – more aware of the ways in which good intentions and concern can categorise or fetter the free expression of transgendered and disabled people, and that the best inclusive welcome for any marginalised group is to grant them uncondescending space to be themselves.
This was a thoroughly absorbing and truly humane evening in which all the contributors and director Kate O’Donnell should take great pride.