[Review:] BEIGE, The Vaults Studio, London.
Written by Anna Wheatley and directed by Jessica Daniels, Beige is a most heartwarming and cogent performance, representing the queer experience, for the most part, with clarity and precision. The play remains both emotional and encouraging, informative and entertaining. A good play, indeed.
There do remain, however, many areas of this play that require further attention and refinement. One of these is the use of space and its significances. The stage is divided into three sections by white floor tape, the middle section being the widest and the main playing area. The significance of this is that the two sections on either side are designated “offstage” areas where offstage performers await their cues or interactions with the performers on stage, interactions such as handing over props. It is clear that there is a certain realism and defictionalisation that is desired here, and this is intensified with the direct audience addresses which occur from the very opening of the play throughout. When Ema Thane (playing Alex) enters the stage from within the audience, only to check, perhaps with no actual purpose, the technical equipment and set pieces dotted around the sides of the stage before interacting directly with audience members, Thane both defictionalises the space and makes for a relationship and engagement with spectators, meaning that the content we witness within this space will retain more poignancy, relatability and “realness”.
However, this mode of performance is utterly compromised by the fictionality of the play. As soon as the music that is playing during the opening comes to a stop, Thane returns to the stage and portrays the character of Alex. The lighting (Hector Murray) changes completely, and direct audience address, one which solicits a vocal response, is no longer particular to the performance. The interactions that the offstage performers have with the onstage are just as fictional — drastically so, in fact — with one example being the pretence of inserting a CD into a player wherein an onstage performer simply hands over a CD retrieved from the other side of the stage, the second hand is placed over the CD as though the pickup of a record player, and music starts to play over the speakers. This is a most unseemly feature, especially when the CD or its case are dropped, as by Sukey Willis (playing Erin) on the night I saw the performance, and most inconsistent, given that Thane simply puts the CD in a box for the third and last time round, instead of in an offstage performer’s hand. With Jahvel Hall having a seat reserved for him in the front row of the audience, to sit beside an unsuspecting spectator, the title of ‘offstage’ is extremified but to no avail.
So, there is a deliberate defictionalisation yet this is compromised by the use of what one might call Aristotelian Drama. This denotes that the performance is most unsure of its mode and style: is this a didactic, message-based piece of theatre, or is this simply a hedonistic one? These defictionalisations do not bode well at all with the most part of the play. This is of concern not only to mode and style but to the audience who will inevitably feel unaware of their role and function in a space which interchanges consistently from interactive and distant, and we find evidence of this in the so-called comedy scenes wherein Thane grabs a microphone and talks to the audience, just as in the opening of the play. Whilst this does gradually improves with each of these scenes, the audience are definitely more reticent, hesitant and resistive at first towards interaction. I would urge Magna to reconsider what this use of space and the boundaries offered or broken by this usage are communicating, what effect these have and if these effects are too disparate, as I believe they are. These are important considerations to be had.
On to the writing’s content. This text provides us with a cogent argument for an increase in the understanding of non-binary gender identities, particularly in schools. We are reminded of the key challenges that queer persons face in day-to-day life, from which toilets they feel brave enough to tackle one day to the assault and hate incidents they will face during another. With items such as this former being implicit, evoked in a quick, passing transition, and others, like this latter, being crucial to plot, the content certainly covers a good amount of queer gender-related subjects in as much detail as it sees fit for each. Sexuality is also covered, albeit in less detail, bringing with it its own challenges in regards to relationships and the negative and punitive responses/perceptions that certain romantic partners may have when dating a queer person. Of particular importance in this text is the response of the long-term partner who witnesses the blossoming and the assumption of true identity of their queer other half over a long course of time, a development they might mistakenly deem as “attention-seeking”, “indecisive”, “confused” or “over the top”.
These aforementioned comedy scenes, however, seem to retain less poignancy. Some notable and informative matters are definitely raised in these scenes, such as the discouraging inclusion of negatives in queer identity descriptors such as the ‘non-’ in ‘non-binary’ –– as Alex puts it, “No-one wants ‘non-’ in their identity” –– but the overall content of these scenes remains somewhat unnecessary and vapid. I find what I shall call the Interrogation scenes, where Alex is told to curtsy and bow, to be effective at first but rather bland in their repetition. When the “Interrogators” stray away from this formula and start to talk to Alex as though characters later on in the play, I find their significance to be far too esoteric and complicated.
Most importantly, and most heartwarmingly, the play succeeds in presenting us with the perfect style of parenting for queer children. Alex's mother, Lila (Jordan Whyte), is completely unfazed by Alex's “unconventional” dress, behaviour and manner, nay she is militantly supportive of and defensive for these, standing up for her child against those who deem them too nonconformist, and excited for developments in their identity, such as getting a new partner.
However, there is a drastic change of focus that compromises the content of this play, where Lila suddenly and erroneously becomes the main –– if not only –– focal point of the story. We end with a letter from Lila, one in which she playfully recounts the embarrassing experience of getting locked outside of the house, naked and needing to get to work. Until the end, all information presented about Lila has been presented solely to progress Alex’s story. Everything from her divorce with Alex’s father to her therapy dancing is all intended to inform us of Alex’s character or situation or to help the character of Alex themselves. Her death thus seems far too extreme a change in focus, unrelated to the content we are shown hitherto.
This performance is the perfect context to voice profound discourses surrounding gender and sexuality and queerness. Whist a good amount of ground is covered, there is so much more that this performance could touch upon. This performance does touch upon the aspect of inexpressibility of gender that so many queer persons experience, the unavailability or incomplete nature of words to describe gender identity and the resulting feelings of [the displeasingly named] gender dysphoria; however, its manner of doing so is most repetitive and simplistic and hence remains uninformative. When asked why they feels this way, particularly by the Interrogators, Alex becomes distressed and speechless, caving in on themselves frustratedly; it would be beneficial for us as audience members to see Alex overcome this difficulty and find an appropriate and all-encompassing way to express themselves. Furthermore, the queer experience is notably subjective, and I would like to see this stressed more in this performance, to have a more particularised representation beyond the standard and generic.
As for the writing itself, the register of language used is, at first, rather unstable, seeing dialogue between Alex and Lila, in particular, incorporating overly descriptive vocabulary. The overall language of the text later becomes much more naturalistic and stomachable. This imbalance is something I would be aware of, editing the script to make for a more fluid and consistent register throughout the text.
Acting is very good in this performance, though I would have liked to have seen a lot more vigour and credibility in Hall’s characterisation of Dean and more transformativity when performers multi-role or when Alex is portrayed at different ages. There is an undeniable onstage chemistry between Thane and Whyte, and this certainly works in the play’s favour. The cast remain enjoyable and convincing, and the material that Thane has prepared for moments of audience interaction is also very promising, minimising any tension that could occur.
The success of the set (designed by Ica Niemz) is somewhat questionable, as alluded to above, in both its aesthetic and function, and there is a definite overuse of props which frequently prove themselves to be problematic and unmanageable. However, I must say that this set’s organisation makes for very seamless and slick transitions, and the plastic pipe structure proves itself to be a most versatile and imaginative set piece. Lighting aids the performance well, separating scenes smoothly and providing atmosphere and dimension. Costume (also designed by Niemz) is equally appropriate, yet the attire chosen for the teachers, played by Hall and Willis, are most strange, indeed.