A white-rimmed frame, like giant Meccano, boxes the performing area. Stage left, a simple chair, a make-up table and a mirror. A man, naked, approaches a microphone, restive, wary, tense with trammelled-up emotion. He is about to tell a story…
I’m sitting below-deck at the Belfast Barge, watching Divided, Radical and Gorgeous (DRAG), TheatreofplucK’s ‘cross-dressed tale of gay life led through the Troubles’, part of this year’s Belfast Pride Festival.
Taking the DRAG acronym as a marker, I’m expecting a reasonably light-hearted evening, flamboyant, colourful, perhaps a little naughty and provocative. DRAG – which is designed and directed by Niall Rea – is all those things in places.
It is also, however, a notably serious examination not just of gay identity, but of identity, period – how we build it, why we need it, how its brittleness and evanescence can drive us momentarily (or worse) stir-crazy.
The point is speared home at the show’s brilliantly theatrical climax, when actor Paul Boyd’s vertiginous recitation of queer identity-types crashes spectacularly, imploding in the cruelly self-revealing observation that every last one of them is ‘f**cked up, really'.
Boyd’s dynamism and talent for mimicry, as he compiles his wickedly observant check-list of gay stereotypes, is the show’s obvious highlight, a tour de force of high-class comic acting. As a storyteller probing the many darker aspects of his character’s personal history, however, Boyd is equally impressive.
Hair buzz-cut, skin milky-smooth as a Michelangelo sculpture, he initially cuts a nervily uncertain figure. Eyes bruised from a domestic incident, his character is also internally injured by a young manhood spent grappling with his emerging sexuality, in an environment both violent and deeply inimical to the expression of anything other than conventionally heterosexual sentiments.
Rea's tales of verbal bullying, familial dysfunction, and a lacerating relationship with a closeted paramilitary ‘freedom fighter’, are told for the most part by Boyd with good-humoured equanimity, eschewing rant and wrangle.
What Boyd actually delivers is more nuanced, unsettling and thought-provoking: his degree of insight into why he, and others like him, are so desperately impelled to externalise their sense of ‘otherness’ and difference is unsettling, and occasionally startling.
Life’s a drag, so let’s drag up, is the implicit message, and Boyd marks his character’s palpable growth in confidence and self-assurance with satisfying precision, as he gradually becomes she, donning a spangled tutu and sensually applied facial make-up.
‘Some other way of being’ is how Rea describes what his tortured character is looking for. Does he find it? Rea’s script is inconclusive, and rightly so in my opinion. We’re all on ‘journeys’ nowadays, and few of them seem to have any neatly defined ending.
Boyd exits with a song, provisionally yet defiantly celebrating his status as a survivor, bloodied but unbowed by the battlefield of gender politics and messy interpersonal relationships that he has so far negotiated.
But this is not a show that drones or preaches. Rea manages the difficult trick of being sharp and provocative without ever becoming unduly strident or didactic. What he’s created is a kind of confessional cabaret where real feelings, fears and anxieties rise much closer to the surface than is usual in this style of dramatic presentation.
There is, Rea suggests, ‘queerness’ of a sort in all of us. If that is true, then DRAG has plenty to teach us about it.
Belfast Pride Festival continues until August 4.