Adam (4 stars) | Eve (3 stars) | Circa: Humans (2 stars)

Matt Trueman reviews Adam (4 stars) | Eve (3 stars) | Circa: Humans (2 stars)

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Published 09 Aug 2017

“We are you, we hear you, we understand.” The words flood through the Traverse; a choir of trans voices from all over the world singing together. The song soars upwards, completely transcendent, flush-full of feeling. It will stand for a festival finally giving voice to trans stories. The National Theatre of Scotland offers two, very different and entirely similar: Adam and Eve.

Adam Kashmiry grew up in Eygpt; a trans man in a woman’s body, and in a society that keeps the sexes quite separate. In Frances Poet’s play, Adam’s played by two performers; one male, Kashmiry himself, and one female, Neshla Caplan. It’s a simple, lucid gesture in a play concerned with doubles. Contronyms—words that contain their own opposites—run through the text. The stage is a floor of burnished mirrors.

This is a split story; local and global, personal and political. Adam makes it to Glasgow and claims asylum, only to hit a catch-22. Unable to live as a man in Egypt, he can’t supply evidence that he’s transgender. It leaves him in limbo, caught between countries, between lives, between genders.

Poet ties two transitions together. Adam’s constrained by his body, Egypt by its head – Hosni Mubarak. Both are freed by the internet—Adam finds trans testimonials, and Egypt, social media—and both take their fate into their own hands. As revolutionaries occupy Tahrir Square to demand their freedom, Adam self-prescribes testosterone to demand his. It is, Poet implies, an act of self-immolation.

It’s an explosive association—British bureaucracy as autocracy—and one that Poet doesn’t entirely stand up. When the revolution and Adam collapse in different ways, I wondered about the rationale of regulation. Is the freedom online—dark web and all—a freedom too far?

Or might it be the making of us? Cora Bissett’s production ends with that trans choir, recorded individually online, singing together as one: “We are you, we hear you, we understand.”

How long has that gone unsaid? Jo Clifford knew from an early age that she was a woman in a male body. “Children know,” she presses. It wasn’t until her mid-fifties, and the death of her wife, that she started living as such. In Eve, softly spoken as a sigh, she looks back at what seems like several lives in one.

There’s the child, internalising a crowd laughing at a pantomime dame; the schoolboy sleeping in dorms named after military men; the young lover orgasming for the first time; the father to two girls; the widower; and, at last, the woman. Photos of them all are projected onto the back wall so that Clifford sits in front of her younger, former self, John. Her images reflects off his; the woman she is trapped behind the men she was. Identity shimmers. Is the gaunt boy any more different to the middle aged man than he is to Clifford now?

Like Kate O’Donnell’s You’ve Changed, playing at Summerhall, you get the sense of a long life lived. Clifford spent decades not just in the wrong body, but in a society that couldn’t—or wouldn’t—understand. It seems a terrible waste: years of shame and isolation, countless daily indignities. She recalls a night at the Met in New York, traipsing downstairs again and again, accompanied by a silent security guard, to its one gender-neutral toilet.

Clifford’s quilted delivery can be overbearing, but her story needs airing as much as it needs hearing. She talks of cruelties encountered on public transport and pressures imposed by her boy’s boarding school, but also of small kindnesses—waiters welcoming her as “madame"—and simple pleasures like red wine and summer heat. Family too, and acceptance in place of rejection. In Eve, as in Clifford, all these things co-exist.

Bodies can, of course, be as brilliant as they are bothersome. Humans, the new show from Yaron Lifschitz's circus rockstars Circa, runs through the corpus’s capabilities. Centring on acrobatics over apparatus, it’s a return to basics for the troupe: a show built entirely out of bodies.

They flip, flop and fly across the floor; 10 individuals darting over and under one another. Pairs run through all the ways they fit together, and two lovers go toe-to-toe, weaving in and out of one another. Groups toss each other around in hand-to-hand routines, and clamber up into five-strong human towers, necks braced, legs bearing the weight. It’s as if they’re taking their physical forms for a test drive. They hit limitations too, of course. Try as they might, not one of these sublime, stretchy specimens can lick the back of their own elbow.

While the intention is pared back and pure, however, the effect is often merely plain. A company known for its artistry—Lifschitz is a master of timbre and tone—has effectively delivered a straightforward show of skill and strength. A perfect human puppet bit—Kimberley O’Brien is dead-eyed and limp-limbed—gives a tantalising glimpse of what they’re capable of, but otherwise it’s all a bit display team routine. The soundtrack’s a jumble, jaunty one moment, foreboding the next, and for a show about limitations, it rarely pushes its artists to their limits. If anything, Humans is too comfortable in its own skin.