I don’t even want to think about the risk assessment for this one.
Emma Frankland’s We Dig transcends mess. Opening the Ovalhouse’s final season of their residency at, well, Kennington Oval’s Ovalhouse ahead of moving to Brixton next year, Frankland has the remarkable opportunity to rip apart the venue, not just the part providing the set for We Dig, but every part of it. Yes, there are hard hats. Yes, there is dancing in the dirt. A pneumatic drill. An oily handprint over a boob. Earplugs and goggles are supplied.
But a small, tended kitchen garden is also revealed, allowing Gein Wong to demonstrate to us how to grow garlic. We Dig likes to frustrate, opening with ten minutes at least of the five transfeminine performers, including Frankland, digging together, sometimes haphazardly and sometimes more in unison, saying little, passing a Coke between them. Occasionally, they find things. Mostly, things feel loose, up in the air, conversational; it even feels quite peaceful at times, just watching and listening to the digging.
The company seem to speak to us in their own time – ideas or feelings float to the surface and make themselves apparent. Morgan M. Page shows us a poster, discovered in the earth, for Hot Peaches, who performed at the Ovalhouse (with their showcase Gay?) in 1977. They imagine finding ancestors in the dirt: confirmation that people essentially like them have always existed, and which, having being found, show their descendants the way onwards. Like rocks, like crystals, they are formed under pressure, we’re told.
We Dig makes a debris-heavy home for itself in the uneasy territory of false-or-real, an area in which trans people often painfully or playfully reside (“Real sometimes feels so fake,” Wong notes). Can you be real enough? What’s real when it comes to gender? We’re seeing a sort of real demolition site, onstage, and the company’s actions are real, often drowning out their own words with the clang! of a spade against cement or rock against wheelbarrow, but it makes you think of the meticulous planning that went into all of this. E. Mallin Parry has created, with Frankland, one of the most interactive – and dangerous – sets for actors I’ve ever seen.
If We Dig had a firmer structure, a more discernible shape, we might learn more about its five performers’ personas within the show, but its devised, collaborative origins lead to a loose, relaxed and confessional feel. Moments of truth are unearthed: Travis Alabanza (replaced by Tamir Pettet for select performances) has a leak-fuelled breakdown atop scaffolding, about all the things they’re expected to do, and to be, while Tamarra shares her cita-cita (the bahasa Indonesia word for a small, achievable dream), which is just to be Tamarra. Each performance of We Dig features a different special guest, and we see La John Joseph stepping out into the rubble, immaculate, to speak about all the things they arm themself with in their handbag before stepping outside, and their hopes for a new world.
It felt poignant to be seeing We Dig on the day of The Stage publishing an op-ed by a prominent anti-trans campaigner on the Old Vic’s decision to make all of its bathrooms gender-neutral. This was followed by the publication’s swift removal of both her piece and an earlier, pro-gender-neutral toilets piece by a different author, because of the backlash that followed – taking a step away from the issue altogether.
At the press night, you could both hear this being talked about, as you’d expect, and feel it; I’d spent most of the day in a kind of anxious internal furore. For trans people in this industry, taking a step back isn’t an option, nor is scrubbing things away, as if nothing had ever happened. Opening the show, Frankland pointedly noted the Ovalhouse’s gender-neutral bathrooms, to some laughter, some whoops.
I sat there knowing I had trans friends close by, that I recognised other faces here as people similar to me, that the few bathrooms at this tiny venue were safe, private and usable. I felt what I’d known for a long time before this but had been forced to unearth from the muck that day again, tired and shovel in hand: that purporting to be agenda-less and apolitical only keeps the vulnerable held down harder, and that art is political, as is, naturally, writing about art. Theatre venues, companies and individuals are increasingly making a move, one way or the other, but there’s no keeping clean, for some of us: we’re already in the dirt.