merry christmas, Ms Meadows

During the last few years, the Belarus Free Theatre company has built a strong reputation in issue-based theatre, utilising a wide range of performance techniques to frame and express their chosen subjects in a forceful, memorable manner. Admittedly, they can be somewhat off-putting at first; the break-neck speed with which this cast of nine forcefully speak in their native tongue is frankly disconcerting, matched only by the flashing of the English language surtitles above their heads.

As a theatrical documentary this has plenty of passion but it all too often lacks focus and precision.

Premiering in Edinburgh, this new show focuses on the entwined issues of gender and sexuality, based on a variety of real-life stories from Africa, Asia, Europe and America. The initial — and titular — hook is Lucy Meadows, a transgender teacher working in an Accrington primary school, who was found dead following a wave of media interest in her transition. The company’s initial simple staging of chairs certainly echoes a school classroom, albeit with copies of the Scottish Daily Mail — the English edition was among the newspapers criticised by a coroner for their “character assassination” of Ms Meadows — hung on the seats. Yes: the symbolism in this show can be that transparent.

Much of this work focuses on the various ways in which those who do not easily fit the binary male/female heterosexual ‘norm’ have been — and still are — persecuted by societies and individuals around the world. The show is a global tour that takes in both Oscar Wilde and the often brutal experiences of gay men in Russia’s prisons. It touches on the original myth of the hermaphrodite and the realities of life as one of the Hijra, the transexual and transgender individuals who exist as “a religion, a tradition, a history” within the Indian subcontinent. It also takes in the Albanian tradition of women who choose celibacy and take on a man’s role in the community: for some it’s a way to avoid an arranged marriage, but for others it’s an economic and cultural necessity in a society where ongoing blood feuds can apparently lead to a family’s male members being destroyed almost overnight.

As a theatrical documentary this has plenty of passion but it all too often lacks focus and precision; having two cast members outline the medical details of creating male and female genitals while performing some rhythmic tap-dancing is ultimately just baffling in terms of what might be achieved. That said, there are some genuinely humorous moments; while it is perhaps invidious to focus on a single performer, a particularly memorable point of the show is when Pavel Radak-Haradnitski spouts a stream of Christian heteronormative dogma while dressed in black tights and a sparkly black dress, and performing lewd dance movements in front of audience members in the front row.

The message of this show is that there are “no real women, no real men”, just people who deserve the chance to be more than the functions of their genitalia without a need to justify themselves. An excellent message, to be sure, but as a work of theatre this is something of an explosive misfire; worth seeing, certainly, but something which could’ve been so much better.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

Internationally acclaimed and fearlessly inventive Belarus Free Theatre (2013 Impatto Totale Award and 2011 Fringe First Award winners) return to Edinburgh with a brand new production which challenges the roles of identity, gender and sexuality in the world today. Using first degree research from Africa, Asia, Europe and America, in areas where to be different is often comparable to a criminal act, Merry Christmas, Ms Meadows draws on real life stories to create an original and arresting piece of theatre.

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