What should one expect of a play subtitled ‘a queer epic’? Well, epicness. And queerness. Neither are easily defined: really more of a feeling than a category. Things feel epic. And, according to playwright Hal Coase, things feel queer. He even proposed in an interview for this website that, by this logic, someone could conceivably de-queer his play Callisto, now returning to the Arcola after a run in Edinburgh. By one definition of the word, this would surely be impossible: the play tells the intertwining stories of four couples, two lesbian and two gay, who face various obstacles and responses to their love, including but not limited to death, murder, homophobia, and being an android. It is arguably inherently queer.
So why doesn’t it feel queerer?
Coase’s four stories, fluidly directed by Thomas Bailey, are unquestionably about LG (maybe)B people (I leave off the T intentionally, but more on that later). They span eras and countries, from Restoration England to interwar Britain to 1970s America to, well, the moon. This last is the queerest in many senses of the word, the most subversive and strangest, raising real questions about love and gender – what is love, and can it be learned? – even as it treads somewhat well-worn sci-fi tropes, all to the tune of high-speed Clockwork Orange-esque slang. This patter, while clever and enabling of turns of phrase that become achingly poetic in their simplicity, takes some adjusting to every time. In this respect, the constant scene-switching becomes an inhibition to real connection.
This is true of other elements of the storylines as well: the interwar plot, a two-hander, is muted and emotionally intense, but cutting in and out loses the complex emotional and dense conversational threads every time. The beginning and endings of each scene of the storyline feel frayed, and I found myself fumbling to remember precisely where we’d left off, and thus why we were picking up here. However, Phoebe Hames is a joy channelling some Downton Abbey Maggie Smith as a delightful old dame prone to the sort of snarky bon mots that make her seem more queer – in a Wildean sort of way – than almost any other character in the play, despite being apparently straight.
In contrast, the intercut style feels like it’s being used to paper over the patchiness of the 1680s plot. This part is loosely based on a real person, Arabella Hunt, who petitioned for a divorce from her husband on the grounds that he was actually a woman; this was found, at least anatomically speaking, to be true. In Coase’s version, Arabella and Amelia are in love, and engaged in an intentional deception. Between Amelia’s motivations for living as a man (her language about her presentation suggested to me that she conceived of it as cross-dressing, more an anxious inhibition than the expression of a proto-trans identity) and Arabella’s theatrical career, there’s more than enough of interest in this strand to fill a full-length play of its own. But ironically, by condensing it all down, it feels thin despite all this potential. It’s like essential scenes have been skipped over. And as is so often done in historical queer stories, Coase projects Victorian scruples backwards onto an earlier era, inventing a lock-‘em-up moral panic where there seems to have historically been none.
Coase’s writing is strongest when it’s cheekiest, and the final subplot hits a sweet spot of hilarious irreverence. Featuring a Midwestern woman’s quest for self-discovery in the wilds of the LA porn industry, it too feels like it could be a much longer, freestanding play, which is partly a reflection of the fact that hints of underdevelopment is a consistent problem with the intercut structure, but mostly a compliment. Perhaps Coase just finds Americans inherently ridiculous (fair), but whatever it is that frees him to ascend into wild camp in this storyline is worth it. As the most tonally distinct, it fits most smoothly into the back-and-forth of scene and settings.
Despite the clumsiness of the structure, there are real highlights: everything about Nicholas Finerty’s wide-eyed, obedient android; the musings on loss that Hames and Darren Sia exchange; Coase’s ease with the playful language of long-held intimacy, and Georgia Bruce and Marilyn Nadebe’s ease with delivering it to one another. The play is engaging throughout. It’s genuinely refreshing to see self-styled queer theatre that pays as much attention to lesbians as to gay men. But it’s also packed with mainstream LGBT storytelling tropes, and perhaps that is what makes it feel so un-queer. The stories of abuse and homophobia in particular are treading old ground.
It makes sense that tragedy has long been a dominant tone for LGBT stories; there’s a lot of hurt and hiding to go around. But the relentless focus on sin and punishment – the endless reminders that there is no happy place for queer folks in history – has begun to feel, frankly, a little regressive. Especially since it’s just not true. We don’t need to go to the moon to find happy homosexuals. There has been death and loss and deprivation, of course. But there have also been men and women in love throughout history who have found a way. Maybe the radical thing is to tell their stories for a little while, to dig up the many ways, shapes, and forms historical queer folks found to be together beyond public monogamy that is indistinguishable from a heterosexual marriage, to insist upon the past and present potential for happiness.
It comes down, perhaps, to what each audience member wants and needs from their queer theatre. If the simple fact of gay characters delights you, then Callisto will too. If you’re anxious for more colour-blind casting, they’ve got some (never mind that the two storylines featuring actors of colour are also the two that end unhappily, and the storylines where the characters could actually be people of colour and not just played by them star white actors). I’ll always applaud these things, along with experimentation and ambition, and theatres who are willing to programme writers attempting both. But I’ll save the word ‘queer’ for plays that do more to subvert tropes, expectations, and even maybe what we understand LGBT stories to be.
Callisto: a queer epic is on until 23 December 2017 at the Arcola Theatre. Click here for more details.