I’ve always thought that the Minotaur got a raw deal in the Theseus and the Minotaur myth. Okay, he had been eating people as sacrifices – 7 girls and 7 boys a year, as the story goes – but Theseus comes into his labyrinth home, kills him, finds his way out following a ball of thread given to him by Ariadne, takes Ariadne away with him, and dumps her on an island. She is so heartbroken that she is transformed into a star. In fact, most of the characters get a raw deal in the myth – even Theseus, Milk Present’s new show Bullish suggests. All the characters are caught in the labyrinth of limiting, patriarchal understandings of gender norms as dichotomous.
Bullish, devised by the company and written and directed by Lucy J Skilbeck, is a loose adaptation of the myth, but one that rips up the rulebook, or, rather, digs out the rulebook from its hiding place in the library stacks to show us how to rip it up. The performers take turns to play the central character Asterion (meaning ‘starry one’/’master of the stars’), giving a name and a voice to the Minotaur.
Asterion is a hybrid character that combines aspects from the Minotaur, Ariadne (although Ariadne does have her own song as well, brilliantly performed by Krishna Istha) and Icarus. Magpie-like, Bullish feathers its homemade wings with scraps of myth, recombining them into something that allows room for change. Texts, like identities, are porous and not static. As Ariadne and Asterion sing,
‘But what’s written in ink doesn’t have to stain,
What’s sketched out once can be drafted again,
What’s tied up in the skies can be unwound on the land,
Because this parchment is yours and the quill’s here in your hand.’
(which may sound trite when you write it but is surprisingly effective sung).
Bullish’s most drastic rewriting is of the conflict with Theseus. Adam Robertson strides onto the stage in a set piece of macho mansplaining, comically at odds with the subtle threads of the rest of the performance. As Theseus, he tries to goad Asterion into fighting him. But Bullish offers an alternative to Theseus’ toxic brand of masculinity. Asterion, the child of Pasiphae and a bull, chooses pacifism. Powerfully, Asterion recites Theseus’ gender aggressions back to him, suggesting that bullshit understandings of gender affect cis people too.
A. I am a bull
D. I am a bull
C. I am a bull
B. I am a bull – ish.
B. We are sort of bulls
C. Bulls of sorts
A. The sort of bull that is also not a bull.
C. An assortment of bull features
B. And also human features.
The sort of bull you might also find getting a manicure.
C. Or a pub lunch
D. Sort of a bull.
Bullish is built around the powerful image of its title; being a minotaur is a metaphor for being gender non-conforming. The trans narratives celebrated in popular culture are often ones of complete transition, from boy to woman, from girl to man, someone ‘born in the wrong body’ finding his/her/their true self. I am not dismissing the truth of this narrative for the people who identify with it. However, I also worry that for many non-binary, genderqueer, trans or gender-nonconforming people, the conventional transition narrative is an oversimplification to make their stories more comfortable for cis people to consume. Bullish is an important deviation from this narrative; the minotaurs are emphatically hybrid in their identities.
Bullish does not skim over the difficulties this can cause. The ensemble speak of the aggressions, macro and micro, that people who don’t conform to traditional cis-het understandings of gender routinely face. Characters react to Asterion with horror and disgust, disconcerted by Asterion’s complex identity not being immediately legible to them. However, this hybrid identity is also shown to be a source of strength and beauty; there is an amazing, uplifting, ensemble description of Asterion flying over their town on homemade wings.
The gender indeterminacy of the minotaurs is reflected in the generic indeterminacy of Bullish as a whole. There are so many elements to the performance that at times it feels like the piece hasn’t decided what it wants to be – a radical adaptation of a myth, a musical, direct address about non-binary experiences of gender. This can feel disconcerting as an audience member. But maybe it doesn’t need to decide on a genre and maybe that’s the point. Its hybridity is its strength.
Bullish is at Camden People’s Theatre, as part of Come As You Are 2017, until September 30th. For more details, click here.