Pros: A breathtakingly theatrical exploration of complex themes.
Cons: A couple of moments don’t work as brilliantly as the rest.
‘Do you see me?’ This direct but ambiguous question is posed several times during Outbox Theatre’s new production. It goes straight to the heart of identity and appearance, and by the end of this extraordinary dramatic extravaganza, the question elicits a very different response from the feelings it stirs at the outset.
Devised by the company, the show begins with the cast of seven taking their places on the stage one by one. What follows are the personal stories of each of the performers, told through a dazzling range of theatrical styles, as we learn of the struggles and obstacles faced by those born with non-traditional gender identities.
Two spoken word elements that recur throughout the production are a diary-like list of ages and personal landmarks, and a litany of questions that have been put to these individuals as they attempt to find themselves and their place in the world. Alongside the words that brilliantly and economically encapsulate the issues are sections of physical theatre. One such repeated motif has the characters moving up and down stage and side to side in choreographed movements that at first seem like a going-through-the-motions or a prison parade. But gradually an element of swagger creeps in, and by the end of the show the characters are in full-on catwalk mode.
Another visually striking aspect is the use of a large clear plastic sheet to capture, entwine and restrict the freedom of characters. Watching them being hunted and repressed in this way is a supremely moving metaphor for the societal forces marshalled against those fighting to become their true selves.
Clothing plays an important role in the piece – there are a lot of costume changes, and accompanying nakedness. One character repeatedly changes from ostensibly male to female garb as if either unsure of their preference, or perhaps laying claim to both. In another tremendously powerful set-piece, the characters select costumes from clothes rails. This ritual takes place almost covertly in darkness, only lit in brief flashes by the prying glare of a single torch – an intrusive presence that reveals the characters in their most vulnerable yet unapologetic states.
This is a production dripping with invention and theatricality. The first song we hear (with the cast on piano, electric guitar and percussion) is a version of Teenage Dirtbag that begins in tentative shame but builds to punkish defiance. Later, Miiko Toiviainen delivers a solo performance of Antony and the Johnsons’ Bird Gerhl that is almost unbearably moving. What a voice! My spine is tingling now at the remembrance of the beautiful honesty and intensity of that experience.
As the show gathers momentum, one is struck by the unrepentant tone of the piece and the upward trajectory of the narrative. Without downplaying the hardships and opposition faced by the characters, theirs are not hard-luck stories. They conjure empathy but never ask for pity, and there’s something heroic about that.
The final scenes of the show casually strip away the fourth wall and allow the characters to stand before us unadorned by stagecraft, as they talk to us eye-to-eye about their experiences, a shared microphone passing between them. It’s a bold, liberating and inclusive move which leads seamlessly into a singalong of Tegan and Sara’s Closer during which the audience are invited to join the cast onstage for a joyous party.
When the final ‘Do you see me?’ was asked, I looked at the stage and realised the true power of this remarkable show: I didn’t need or want labels to describe these people – all I saw were seven amazing human individuals. And the Rest of Me Floats is an astonishing theatrical achievement. Go.
Director: Ben Buratta
Designer: Ruta Irbite
Booking Link: https://outboxtheatre.eventbrite.co.uk
Booking Until: 23 September 2017