Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Political Correctness Gone Mad

I am a strange soul. Between wishing for a return to some kind of modernist idyll - when policemen didn't carry retractable batons and steam trains ran out of Edinburgh Waverley - I immerse myself in the most post-modern and counter-cultural arts. I might not even be real, being merely the shadow cast by the Daily Mail's morality.

Coming out of the Fringe, I can't account for the way that I can happily remember a show that began with an anecdote about Foucault taking a shit in a lecturer's mouth and being offended by an innocuous all-ages acrobatic performance. And the contrast between my admiration for Boy in a Dress, a melange of post-modern discourse, stripping and live art, and my frustration at Detention, which had an obviously talented cast, boils down to my idiosyncratic morality.

Although I have a vague hope that my morality comes from my time teaching for the Jesuits (based on both cerebral questioning and compassion), it is as likely that it comes from the stage: the moral value of something is intricately linked to its theatrical potential. And so, La Johnjoseph's promotion of  "trandrogyny" becomes more ethical than Detention's portrayal of the competitive gender roles of the classroom.

It's clear that the cast of Detention are talented acrobats, but the gender roles (simpering school-girl, macho boy pupils and a female teacher who inevitably throws off her frumpy glasses and gets down to a sexy shimmer) limits the narrative potential and turns what ought to be an impressive hour of stunts into an essay on old fashioned values. The boys get to show off and fight over the girl, who is given little agency, but none of the contests take flight. The entire performance stops and starts, a new skill is showcased and the teacher, who reveals stunning aerial techniques and a raw physical strength, is reduced to a series of interruptions to the lads' leapings.

If complaining about the relationships between the characters and the representation of male and female stereotypes sounds like political  correctness gone mad, the problem intrudes into the structure and development of Detention. With no real reason for the boys to do their spectacular actions, they never evolve their routines beyond displays of trickery. Every single move is cool, but the choreography goes nowhere.

When circus acts are trying to forge a deeper intention to their shows - Tumble Circus explore their relationship breakdown - Detention lacks coherence. That the show ends on an energetic but irrelevant session  of drumming - the characters appear just to decide to get the drums and bang away - highlights how a more thoughtful approach might have made the finale integrated and relevant.

La Johnjoseph is probably The Daily Mail's nightmare and naturally becomes my dream. An extended meditation on La Johnjoseph's life so far, it takes a series of poignant vignettes and weaves them into a sustained and entertaining treatise on the difficulties and rewards of Third Gender experience. Imaginative in its staging - a list of husbands is recounted like prizes in a cheap game show, while the revelation of the graffiti on toilet walls has the drama of an archaeologist uncovering ancient hieroglyphics - it uses only La Johnjoesph and animus to merge striptease, storytelling, dance, comedy and tragedy into a  satisfying and deeply moral tale of acceptance and compassion.

Fighting prejudice, La Johnjoseph is a gentle warrior: although the sung interludes reveal an untrained voice, each song is reinvented as a blow for freedom. Catholicism, so simple a target, becomes as much of an inspiration as an enemy: the grand moment of understanding between mother and child is a naked display of compassion.

Perhaps my morality is clearer than I thought: compassion is the divine principle and anything that strives to expand freedom is holy. Detention, despite its celebration of the bodies that fly through the air, constrains by offering such dull stereotypes: La Johnjoseph not only witnesses one life journey, but heralds new possibilities.

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