Friday, July 29, 2016

'Rotterdam' at Trafalgar Studios, 28th July 2016

Rotterdam sucks. Granted, that's mainly because the Nazis dropped 1,300 bombs on it in one night. With its medieval city centre wiped off the face of the earth, the way was paved for a present of anony-corporate skyscrapers, shopping centres as far as the eye can see and a clawing vacuum where a personality should be. With Utrecht and Amsterdam only forty minutes away by train, why would anyone stay in Rotterdam?

This is the thorny question facing Rotterdam's characters, each of whom is trapped there in a sadistic social and romantic oubliette of their own devising. The core are Alice (Alice McCarthy) and Fiona (Anna Martine), two British women who're deeply in love. Along for the ride is Josh (Ed Eales-White), Fiona's older brother. Complicating matters is that Alice came to Rotterdam as Josh's girlfriend, but was immediately smitten on meeting his sister, who subsequently moved over.

In the opening scene, Fiona throws a bomb into this dynamic. She explains that she's always felt like a man in a woman's body and is planning to undergo a gender transition. Henceforth she will be known as Adrian. With her once-girlfriend looking and behaving ever more masculine, Alice is in a bind. If she's a lesbian but her girlfriend is now a man, does that make her heterosexual? If she's in love with Fiona, does that mean she's automatically in love with Adrian?

The situation proves quite the pickle, compounded by the arrival of the hyper-neon, ultracool 21 year old Dutch lesbian Lelani (Jessica Clarke), who oozes the feminine sexuality that Alice feels deprived of.

It's a plot set-up that never feels remotely contrived, and no doubt analogues of this situation have taken place in countless hetero/homo relationships - be it a woman explaining her need to live as a man or vice versa. Playwright Jon Brittain displays a reassuringly extensive knowledge of trans issues, from the physical and emotional effects of the person undergoing transition to the reactions of those around them. 

These days its trendy (almost cliche) to state that gender is performative. In an ideal world Fiona's transition into Adrian is just be someone donning a set of gender signifiers that tessellate better with their psychology. Rotterdam explains that it's not as simple as that; coming from the angle that Fiona is essentially dead after the transition and that there's a new person, Adrian, in her place. Sure Adrian looks similar to Fiona, has the same memories and same basic personality, but they're quintessentially not the same person. 

No-one envies Alice having to deal with this - her fears communicated in powerful monologues where she bemoans the social pressure to be tolerant and supportive of people expressing their true gender identity (despite any knock-on emotional consequences for you), worries about whether she can be attracted to a man and angrily reacts to her own sexual identity being redefined without her consent. When the play grapples with these questions about gender, identity and sexuality, it's effective, intelligent and dead serious.

Mercifully, the rest of the time it's goddamn hilarious. Generally maintaining a sharply comic tone, there's at least five or six humongous gags that go off like a rocket. It's always a good sign when your actors have to pause for a moment before delivering their next line to wait for the audience to stop laughing. Some of these come from the more straightforwardly comic characters of Lelani and Josh, both gentle caricatures that bustle on the borders of the core relationship. Some simply arise without a punchline, as the audience collectively figures something out and laughs that they hadn't noticed it before. It's rare to see a comedy this finely balanced - script and performances polished until they shimmer.

All four actors turn in carefully judged performances. Jessica Clark's Lelani injects a jolt of manic energy whenever she appears. Ed Eales-White's Josh is wry but shows a heart a mile wide, quietly suppressing his own feelings in order to support two women he deeply cares for. 

In Alice, Alice McCarthy gives us a fully rounded performance, her stress, confusion and general emotional exhaustion combining to make a relatable, likeable woman. I was sat in the front row, getting to see her performance close-up (so close she actually kicked me in the knee). I particularly enjoyed her obvious frustration that her own mini-drama (struggling to come out to her parents) is ridden over roughshod by the more attention-grabbing gender transition.

But you've got to single out Anna Martine's boldly aggressive, intensely vulnerable Fiona/Adrian. A striking physical presence from the get go, she moves with a nervy electricity that makes her happiness infectious and her despair crush like a mace. As the effects of transition take hold, her behaviour subtly shifts towards what initially feels like a caricature of masculinity, toying with audience sympathies. These tectonic character shifts are the fulcrum on which Rotterdam turns: it's difficult to imagine the character being done better than this.

My only criticisms are a couple of overly didactic conversations that have a tinge of being transplanted from books/articles encountered during research and an ending that didn't quite stick the landing. It nearly did, but for me something frustratingly indefinable felt off.

Still, by any standards this is a marvellous piece of drama. I was gutted to miss it at it's original run in Theatre503 and pleased when I heard of this (entirely deserving) West End transfer. Rotterdam is the kind of drama that people will look back on in years to come: neatly encapsulating the explosion of identity malleability that've marked sexuality in the 2010s. All but essential.


Rotterdam is at Trafalgar Studios until 27 August. Tickets here. 

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