Trans stories in the West End | Rotterdam by Jon Brittain (Trafalgar Studios)

Rotterdam, home to Europe’s largest port, is a city for transitioning, not for building a life, but Alice and her partner Fiona have been living there for seven years. Alice, resistant to change and conflict, is finally about to take the biggest step of her life: coming out to her parents via email. Just as she is about to hit send, Fiona drops their own bombshell. Fiona is a man, and would like to start living as Adrian as he begins to take steps to transition. Alice’s world is thrown off-kilter as she is forced to question her own sexuality and support Adrian as he becomes the man he was always meant to be. It is a play full of questions – questions of gender, sexuality, and how society shapes our definitions of those parts of ourselves.

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Alice McCarthy as Alice (left) and Anna Martine as Adrian (right)

‘Trans’ has become a buzzword in popular culture, but attempts to represent transgender characters in film and television has often seemed either inaccurate, offensive, or an insulting combination of the two. The premise of this play both intrigued and concerned me, but Jon Brittain has taken on this difficult topic with extreme sensitivity and a crucial understanding of his own privilege as a cisgender man. When several of my close friends came out as transgender a few years ago, I sought to find out as much as I could in order to better support them through transition, and the difficulties and oppressive forces that seek to delegitimise them have become issues very close to my heart. As someone who is part of the queer community, I often struggle with the way in which these stories tend to be appropriated by straight allies without the involvement of the community they are supposedly advocating for. With Rotterdam, Brittain has taken great care in this respect. In the five years during which he developed the script, the trans community was involved at every stage, and has been endorsed by trans media and trans activists. During the post-show Q&A, Brittain noted that his impetus for writing Rotterdam was to learn more about transgender issues himself in order to overcome his own ignorance, and encourage his audiences to do the same. Limited by the time for which you can reasonably ask an audience to sit in silence in a dark theatre, Brittain inevitably had to leave out a great deal of important topics for discussion, but he did emphasise that he hoped audiences would not leave feeling that the book was closed.

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Jessica Clark as Lelani

Rotterdam’s designer, Ellan Parry, has created a playful and aesthetically stunning environment which is as subtly metaphoric as it is versatile. With some incredibly clever lighting design by Richard Williamson and a stellar soundtrack by Keegan Curran, the design team have truly transported their audience not just to a different city, but a different and indeed continually changing state of mind. Characters are glimpsed through open doorways and tentatively come out of the literal closet; parts of the stage which are left untouched for much of the play are suddenly thrown open or altered completely. As Parry so shrewdly put it during the Q&A, “You can’t be put in boxes”, reflecting both the unpredictability of the set and the ever-changing spectrum (or rather, scribbly mess) of gender and sexuality.

Also on the Q&A panel was Ash Palmisciano from trans youth charity Gendered Intelligence, who noted that “Every trans person’s story is completely different”. Obviously, Rotterdam is just one very personal story amongst thousands. But the beauty of what Jon Brittain and director Donnacadh O’Briain have created here is just that: an intensely personal story that tugs right at the heart of you. Alice McCarthy gives a startlingly forceful performance as Alice, commanding the stage as the balance within Alice and Adrian’s relationship begins to shift. Anna Martine’s portrayal of Adrian is comedic at times and utterly heartbreaking at others, making Adrian’s struggle incredibly clear and raw and, most importantly, steering away from any danger of a stereotype. There was one particular moment in this story that hit so hard I found myself sobbing hysterically in my seat. Because I am cisgender, I therefore cannot possibly begin to fathom in a true sense just how difficult certain parts of life can be for a trans person – not because of who they are, but because of how the notions of gender and sexuality so deeply ingrained in society dictate how the world treats them. Martine and McCarthy throw an outstanding amount of energy into their performances, bringing to light some vital challenges relating to gender and sexuality that cisgender-heterosexual audiences desperately need to hear.

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Ed Eales-White as Josh and Anna Martine as Adrian

Rotterdam displays extraordinary and unique production qualities, and I cannot commend the cast and creative team enough for their courage and dedication in providing such an honest portrayal of such complex themes. This is undoubtedly one of the most important plays on stage at the moment. Not only is it simply a wonderfully enjoyable piece of theatre, but will open your mind and make you acutely aware of the way you view the trans community. Everyone should see this play.

★★★★★

Rotterdam by Jon Brittain
Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain
Designed by Ellan Parry
Hatshorn-Hook Productions in association with Theatre503
Trafalgar Studios until 27 August 2016
Tickets available: www.trafalgar-studios.co.uk/Rotterdam.html

[All photos © Nick Rutter]

[Thank you to http://www.TheatreBloggers.co.uk for this opportunity!]

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