views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Drag King Richard III
Riverside Studios
29th July 2014


It's not uncommon for actors to have to learn lines at short notice - there's one theatre company on the fringe circuit in particular which regularly and deliberately gives its performers a mere 10 days to learn a brand new play. However, those tend to be mini-productions, no more than 10 or 12 minutes each, whereas Drag King Richard III is a full 80 minutes and blends modern dialogue with excerpts of Shakespeare's Richard III. To say it's not an easy piece to suddenly pull out of the bag is an understatement. With the two leads in what is only a two-hander recast a mere 72 hours before curtain up, you have to admire the Anne Zander and Bonnie Adair for their bravery in taking the stage.

Terri Power's script is semi-autobiographical and focuses on the difficulties of La Femme (Adair) in accepting her best friend, Laurie (Zander) transitioning from another woman into a man. As the two women try to reach an understanding, the story is interwoven with snippets of Richard III - the significance of this unclear until a good 30 minutes in, when it is finally revealed that La Femme and Laurie both appeared in a production of this when at school together.

Up until that point, it's somewhat confusing, with the constant change from present day to Richard III somewhat difficult to follow. Director Roz Hopkinson presents two beautiful plays, but doesn't help link them together. However, it's almost worth it for Laurie's slow realisation - "I am Richard!" - and the words of a frustrated parent on seamstress duty - "She looks like a boy in drag, what do I do?" Although Laurie was cast as Queen Margaret, she identified more with the King and that's the character we see Zander acting out here; "the monster" who ends up alone. There's very little room for doubt, Laurie hates herself and the sheer negativity of her feelings is overwhelming.

We're left in no doubt that Laurie's female body has never felt natural to her, and when she reconnects with La Femme and writes about her upcoming gender realignment surgery, we know this has been a whole lifetime in the waiting. Lawrence is no less awkward that Laurie, holding himself in the same standoffish manner and keeping his emotions under wraps. On one hand, you're saddened he seems no happier as a man, but on the the other, you realise the change is merely cosmetic, this is who he has always been.

The use of music feels clumsy in places, but a solo dance sequence with Zander is strangely hypnotic. The choreography sees her thrust and strut around the stage, moving into the audience and asserting her character's masculinity crudely and aggressively. Lawrence is a complicated character to take on, but Zander embraces the part wholeheartedly, successfully conveying his anguish and simple desire to be accepted.

Adair perhaps has an easier time of it as our narrator, but she's warm, genuine and allows us to empathise with La Femme's heartbreaking inability to accept her friend. We can feel how much Lawrence craves her understanding, but also we can relate to La Femme's fear of forgetting the Laurie she forged so many special memories with. She may not react how we want her to, but we can see why she does so and that's the point.

Although Power's script touches on an area of sexuality which isn't widely talked about and that in itself should be applauded, it ends on a rather bleak note. Lawrence may have the body he wanted, but with the play being set in the American bible belt, he doesn't have quite the same rights that we might expect. There's no energised call to arms, rather we're left with a feeling of despondency. Drag King Richard III is not without its flaws, but it's certainly no monster. It's a challenging piece of writing, boldly tackled by two talented actresses. It's a shame that the production isn't running for longer, as with a bit more time for everyone to settle into their roles, this could be rather special.

Drag King Richard III ran from 28th July to 3rd August 2014 at Riverside Studios.

Nearest tube station: Hammersmith (Piccadilly, District, Hammersmith & City)

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