Gender identity and sex have become increasingly hot topics over the last few years. As trans experiences have become more openly discussed and representation of trans narratives in the media have become more mainstream, so too has the transphobic push back. Anyone who has any kind of relationship with the online world will no doubt be aware of the so called “debates” that have gone on on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and these discussions have more recently begun to spill over into mainstream media. I will say this now and with utter conviction that debating someone’s existence isn’t a debate, it’s an attack. Understanding trans and non-binary experiences from a cis (someone who identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth) perspective can be difficult; it challenges many of the fundamentals of our gender-based society in ways that can be deeply unsettling, but that isn’t a bad thing. Society, with all its great injustices, hatred and bigotries, is far, far from perfect; to believe it is comes from a place of privileged ignorance. But despite how uncomfortable it may make you feel to have what you thought to be hardline truth questioned, questioning someone’s right to exist is inhumane. There is a difference, in my view, between a debate and a discussion. A debate traditionally follows a binary model that one side is right and the other is wrong – it is about proving your side whilst discrediting the other. A discussion comes from a far more open place – a place of listening and a willingness to learn. In watching Greedy Pig Theatre’s new production, Be, we as an audience were entering a place of discussion and reflection, and it was this atmosphere of compassionate openness that brought a real power to this piece.
Written by Gabrielle Finnegan and directed by Lex Kaby, Be is a spoken word play, running at just under an hour and a half, which follows the experiences of three individuals: Person 1 (played by Finn Harkin), a trans-man; Person 2 (played by Matthew Kay), a cis-man; and Person 3, a cis-woman (played by Alicia Pollard). Set in a mercurial storage space, littered with boxes labelled for jumble sales, charity shops and car boot sales, the characters sort through the detritus of human life and recount their lives in seven chapters, from childhood through to early adulthood. Accompanied live on stage by actor-musician, Harry Miller, the characters reveal how gender, sex and how society interacts with these identities have impacted their lives.
Be is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre, handling a complicated and polarising topic in an emotionally intelligent and respectful way. The pain, anguish, joy and celebration of gender identity and sex are explored with such dynamism and care by Gabrielle Finnegan’s writing, and given their true depth and credence by the talented ensemble cast. Lex Kaby’s choice to dress her performers in identical, loose fitting long tunics is a clever dramaturgical choice to visually create a neutral space for gender to be discussed and explored. Indeed, the earthy, flesh-toned colour palette used throughout the set and costume brings a gentle, almost womb-like element to the stage, as though this is the ultimate safe space for the inevitable vulnerability of the play’s subject to be given the space to breathe. Finn Harkin, Matthew Kay and Alicia Pollard give beautiful, nuanced performances, switching from verse to prose with assured ease. While certain scene transitions felt a little stilted, the emotional and political power of Be was not lost. This is a must see piece of theatre in these painfully turbulent times.