Dressed in a flowing purple dress and lilac cape, with bobbed, curling red hair and immaculate makeup, La John Joseph looks like a film star. The back of my mind spends much of the show trying to work out which film star they remind me of. Keeley Hawes? Audrey Hepburn, obviously. In the 50s film star persona, they speak in clipped RP tones with a slightly Germanic tinge. JJ is our guide on an odyssey through ‘the land of the dead’ – aka NHS psychiatric services, drawing on their experience of caring for a partner, whom they call Orpheus, hospitalised during a manic episode. They have other voices as well – their Liverpudlian accent that seems more tethered to the ‘land of the living’. This is the voice they use to describe the banal, awful details, such as how all wires are locked in a cupboard controlled by the nurses so you can’t charge your electronic devices except under supervision. Such as how JJ is consistently referred to as Orpheus’s ‘friend’ rather than partner. Such as how a nurse mistakes them for a patient because of their transfeminine gender presentation.
A Generous Lover deftly balances glamour and myth with grim reality mediated through humour. It is a meditative piece that embraces queer, non-linear methods of storytelling. The influence of modernist literature looms large, in the dense allusions to the myth of Orpheus, and Dante’s Inferno and the stream of consciousness narration, supplemented by Helen Noir’s haunting soundscape. It is difficult to watch – not so much because of the subject matter, although that might be the artistic justification for the difficulty – but the kind of modernist difficulty that rewards study. I think I would need to see the show at least once more in order really to get under its skin. Perhaps because I haven’t always got on with modernist literature, the parts of the show that drew me in most were the human bits – JJ in their capacity as partner, striking up an unlikely friendship with the wife of one of the other patients. These sections of the show radiate compassion, combined with a refusal to romanticise mental illness. In focusing on the impact of Orpheus’s condition on JJ and their relationship, A Generous Lover tells a side of the story we don’t normally hear. Orpheus may visit the ‘land of the dead’ but he is the one who gets to leave. Is JJ Eurydice?
A Generous Lover is on at Summerhall until 26th August. More info here.