Edinburgh Fringe 2014
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.
Belarus Free Theatre create challenging, activist shows, which in the past have touched on subjects such as environmental disaster and freedom of speech. In Merry Christmas Ms Meadows they turn their gaze to all things trans*, and I mean ‘all things’, as this show comes across as an encyclopaedic run down of trans* issues, and as a result lacks a narrative which could have dramatically improved it.
It is a great subject for a theatre company to tackle; so often trans* people are presented in the media as monsters, freaks or surgical curiosities which entirely subsumes their individual stories. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the appalling tragedy of Lucy Meadows, a trans* teacher who killed herself following the publication of a vicious article about her in the Daily Mail. So it was with this story that the company began their show, giving us a stream of interesting facts about how many publications assigned her the wrong pronoun (‘he’) when reporting before her death switching to the one she would have chosen (‘she’) after her death.
However, this section of the show and many other bits felt a little bit too much like they were just reporting facts to us, and giving a potted history of trans*. What the show lacked was a linking narrative, a story that engaged us and made us care. Don’t get me wrong, I found much of the show fascinating and moving, but it felt as though they were trying to cram too much in, and thus as a piece of art it suffered. This is also true of the style of performance they employed. It seemed that every new area they were exploring came with a different theatrical device to present it. This kept the show dynamic, but at the same time made the whole thing feel even more episodic and disjointed.
The large cast were passionate and talented. One of the highlights was a dance between two of the male performers, that was erotic and powerful and appeared to be set in the context of an orthodox church or mosque. However, this section and others demonstrated a certain confusion as to whether the show was exploring sexuality or gender. It was clear they understood the meaning of trans*, as this got explained to us on a projection, but at times it felt like trans* and sexuality issues were conflated, which could lead to further confusion for an audience about what being trans* actually is.
Having said all that, I think that the show was important, impassioned and well-presented. Coming from a country such as Belarus, where trans* issues are dealt with better than in their neighbouring Russia, but as one sketch clearly detailed, still pretty badly, this work was clearly personal and important for the cast. It is also important that it is seen widely in the rest of the world, as despite the UK giving trans* people certain levels of legal protection and access to gender confirmation surgery, the reality of how they are treated by the media and in public, demonstrate that great leaps still need to be taken.