It’s the halfway point in this, the ninth annual Outburst Arts Festival, Belfast’s only festival dedicated to events of a queer slant. Art installations, lectures, bands, films and workshops rub shoulders with each other during these nine days this November, providing a dazzling array of ideas, opinions, support and entertainment to the LGBTQ community and others.
Tonight in The Mac, Belfast it’s the turn of theatre to take centre stage, Prime Cut Productions teaming together Northern Irish playwright Stacey Gregg with director Emma Jordan: winner of the Spirit Of The Festival award and Dublin-born actress Amy McAllister. Given the recent uproar over the unveiling of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin’s 1916 commemorative programme – the fact that out of ten productions, only one writer is female, with two directors being female – this play having been created and executed solely by women is a talking point in itself within the current climate, before we even take into account the subject matter.
Although the subject matter is quite playful really, at first. During the hour-long monologue Kes – a name chosen as a teen for internet gaming, we never find out the character’s birth name – explains how it was growing up with brothers, attempting to pee standing up like them. Experiments with lip gloss and the nuclear torpedo arrival of boobs, without warning or consideration of whether they were invited are detailed in a visceral and humorous way, this theatre being physical as well as cerebral. Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall‘ introduces a dance that becomes faster and faster, three poses [legs crossed, legs splayed open, knees together or ‘female’, ‘male’ and ‘neutral’] blurred together for a world that forces us to pick one. Kes gets a girlfriend and it’s a touching tale of first chat, first Skype, first meet and first love. The tale is gleefully recounted, moments of wonder interspersed with musings on whether Jules has guessed the secret, reasonings that she must have guessed as Kes always uses the accessible toilets. “There’s always so many men in men’s loos,” you see. They make love eventually, never talking about the secret and Kes tells us frankly that it’s only fingers and tongues, the prosthetic they bought just for filling out trousers and giving confidence to a walk, to a feeling.
Kes tells us all this because we’re in the same support group named, amusingly, LGBTQ – ABCDEF. We are the support group’s listening circle. The MAC has taken on a greyish tinge, the circular minimalist benches look like stone in pale grey, stairs in charcoal and a grey carpet that blends with Kes’ grey tracksuit. Kes flits from place to place, directing their story at different parts of the crowd, of the group. Messages received online are signalled by an electronic ‘ping’ and the three-dimensional rectangles hanging from the ceiling gently glow in a variety of colours as Kes gazes up at them. This is how we find out that Jules has dumped Kes. “You lied to me,” Jules writes and Kes is dumbfounded but gradually recovers with the help of friends in the group. The twist, when it comes is unexpected and playwright Gregg based it on recent court cases: “A girl can’t be accused of raping another girl. So it’s called sexual assault by penetration and fraud.” Matters of consent clash with matters of identity as Kes struggles with the court’s accusation of fraudulently claiming to be a man, almost feeling that the court’s insistence on them being female is the real accusation. McAllister deftly deals with the emotions involved: incredulity, sadness, fear and the lingering confusion of someone who, when they found out they could choose ‘they’ as a pronoun “the whole world fell into place”.
The overarching message of the piece is “Is gender fraud the same as homophobia?” but digging deeper one could ask are accusations of gender fraud the same as homophobia? Or, more simply, should gender fraud as a term even exist in a world where gender identities are fluid for many? As Kes states “Just as likely you are all aliens, and I’m the Earthling. There’s just more of you”. Elizabeth McGeown, GiggingNI.com