As I walk into the church hall where Forward Arena are rehearsing, director Thomas Bailey and the cast are tackling the Prologue of Callisto. Four actors in costumes from wildly different time periods stand onstage: Marilyn Nadebe in a voluminous, red Restoration gown; Darren Siah in a sharply tailored grey suit; Francesca Zoutewelle in a natty tan dress and belted coat; Nicholas Finnerty in dun-coloured t-shirt and trousers that finish at the calves. They have not quite cracked the Prologue yet, Bailey explains. It is challenging because the prologue must initiate the audience into the distinct styles and ways of speaking of each strand of the play, while also forging links between them. ‘Let’s try making the Prologue more casual’, Bailey says. ‘Look at and listen to each other. You are seeing each other, like a…queer, space-time travelling family’. Four characters sidle onto stage. They turn and look at each other, nod, smile slightly, hold up a hand in a subtle wave. A moment of connection and recognition across time and space is conjured.
This production of Hal Coase’s play Callisto has itself been on a long journey (or should that be space mission). First produced in Edinburgh 2016 as Forward Arena’s debut show, it transferred to the Arcola Theatre that autumn for a brief run. Now it’s back for a full run, with a half new cast and an interval. Much of the dramaturgical work that has gone on in the mean time had to do with pacing and working out how to interweave four very different stories, which at times can almost seem like four plays in one, without the audience getting lost.
Although I can understand the directorial challenge of holding open four worlds simultaneously (a challenge Bailey, current Brian Forbes Assistant Director with the National Youth Theatre Rep Company, is more than capable of meeting), this is also one of the play’s great strengths. In terms of queer theatre, Callisto is unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, in exploring multiple strands of the LGBTQ spectrum at once, rather than bifurcating its audience into one target group.
One strand of the play follows seventeenth-century opera star Arabella Hunt, who instituted a court case against her husband James on the grounds that he was a woman, Amy Poulter. In Coase’s version, Arabella and Amy are in a lesbian relationship (although there is also a sense that Amy/ James might identify as trans were they living now), which is beset by the pressures of the misogynistic theatre industry. The Arabella storyline’s fictional echo is found in the Callisto Pornographic Studios plotline set in the 1970s. Missouri girl Tammy Frazer goes on a quest to find Daisy Lou, the porn star she has fallen in love with through watching her videos, and ends up working in the porn industry herself. Another strand, set in 1936, imagines Alan Turing’s final visit to Isobel Morcom, the mother of his classmate, Christopher Morcom, whom he’d loved as a young man before his untimely death from tuberculosis. The fourth storyline takes us to the future and to the moon, depicting Cal, an AI bot, who falls in love with his human companion, Lorn. Watching Callisto in rehearsal and having seen the full production in Edinburgh I couldn’t help comparing it, in my head, to Angels in America. It has that epic ambition and use of language (and apparently an early draft of the play was eight hours long).
Like Angels in America, Coase’s play employs a striking clash of theatrical styles. The eighteenth-century scenes play like an impressive pastiche of a Dryden tragedy. Callisto Studios is all West Coast drawl and porno braggadocio; in one of my favourite scenes of the play, the actors on the porn set question their characters’ motivations, sending the director into a fury. In the future, they speak a bit like a poeticised version of Newspeak, Cal shelving impressions precisely with clipped syntax. The Turing story is quieter, stiff upper lips coasting a wave of grief. Yet, although Coase agrees that that story is the closest to naturalism the play gets, it’s also a pastiche, like the other scenes, of a kind of chamber play characterised by ‘an intense conversation that goes on for three hours and would never happen in real life’. Part of the shock of the juxtapositions is explained by Callisto’s generation. It began life as four monologues, each with a clear voice. Coase explains, ‘anything that came afterwards was built on top of voices that I wanted to be distinct in texture, syntax, lexis as I could possibly make them’.
Although Bailey’s direction brings out resonances and juxtapositions between the story strands, Coase also loves the sense of randomness. In some ways, he suggests, the choice of stories are arbitrary (they seem also, very much, not arbitrary). ‘They are linked only by me having perceived them. I like how the randomness can point to other possible narratives that didn’t happen to get picked for this show’. This sense of partiality and arbitrariness is important for Coase when I ask him about the queerness of his play. He considers, ‘I don’t think you can ever claim you’re covering anything at all adequately’. Callisto is definitely not an assertion of a totalised or universal queer experience.
Indeed, although he considers writing about LGBTQ subject matter important, Coase thinks, influenced by José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, that the ‘queer’ in queer theatre is ‘more like a condition that can be arrived at in the event of performance – queer space, queer energy, queer moment forged within a performance. I don’t think it can necessarily be a starting point. I understand queerness to be affective.’ He also suggests that, just as you can have productions which queer classic texts, you could have a production that un-queers Callisto. I’m not so sure (although it seems like a good challenge to any reactionary directors out there determined to read against the grain). Thankfully, Forward Arena’s production sensitively, hilariously and affectingly realises Callisto’s queerness.
Callisto: A queer epic is on from 5th December to 23rd December at the Arcola Theatre. Book tickets here.