Interview: Outrage for the stage, power play between bodies, both physical and metaphorical, with Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I

Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I

What: New South African play by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer
When and where: March 16–April 2, 2022, Artscape Arena, Cape Town
Tickets: R50-R250
Booking: Computicket/Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695  
Direct booking link:  
Performers: Matthew Baldwin, Marcel Meyer and Lungile Lallie
Age advisory: Adult audiences – age 18 restriction. Contains scenes with strong language, nudity, violence, prejudice, and sex: [SL/N/P/S]

Scroll down for creative credits      

And now for something very different. After staging three plays – one by Yukio Mishima and two by Tennessee Williams, Abrahamse and Meyer Productions is wrapping up its Summer Season 2021/22 of World Theatre, with a new South African play: Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I. The three hander has been written by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer and stars Meyer, Matthew Baldwin and Lungile Lallie. It is described by Abrahamse and Meyer as a “comedy-of-very-bad-manners”, exploring “themes of power, race, gender identity and masculinity (toxic and otherwise).” This is the world premiere of the play which pivots around the relationship between the legendary surgeon, Doctor James Barry, his “manservant”, John and Lord Charles Henry Somerset, who was Governor of the Cape Colony. In childhood, Barry was known as female, Margaret Ann but as an adult, the doctor lived a man. When he died in 1865, his biological sex was made public. As for what occurs in the play, Contested Bodies, here is a taster: “Things get down and dirty in the Governor’s residence when the three men decide, as part of their evening’s entertainment, to enact a lewd and lascivious play penned by the ultimate libertine and provocateur, the salacious Marquis de Sade. The enactment of the De Sade play reveals many unspoken truths and recalibrates the men’s friendship and relationship with each other.” The play flips between the milieu in the Cape Colony and intersects with contemporary times in South Africa, when Chumani Maxwele, “flung human excrement at the statue of British Imperialist Cecil John Rhodes”. In Contested Bodies, Abrahamse and Meyer “will do some faeces flinging of their own in their “outrage for the stage”. We can expect “thrilling, provocative entertainment”, in a “controversial and contested play”. Marcel Meyer provides insights:

Contemporary questions around gender identity

This is a new play. What led you the story of surgeon Dr Barry who lived as a man but was biologically a woman? Marcel Meyer: “”Yes, it is a brand-new play and this season at Artscape, is the world premiere. It was co-written by Fred and me. Both Fred and I have long been fascinated by Doctor Barry’s story – and it seemed the perfect vehicle for us to explore contemporary questions around gender identity utilising a familiar historical narrative.”

The genesis of Contested Bodies

When did you start working on this play – during the pandemic? Marcel Meyer: “We started working on the play during the hardest of lock-downs, when all theatres were closed and there were no performance opportunities on the horizon. Instead of rolling over and playing dead, we decided that we will make most of this ‘down time’ by writing projects that could potentially be staged when theatres finally opened again – so along with History Girls, this is one of those lock-down projects coming to life now.”

How we relate to history conversation between the present and the past

You reference, Chumani Maxwele and Rhodes must Fall. Are you placing parallel narratives in the play – contested bodies – from Dr Barry’s time to contemporary times? Marcel Meyer: “One of the themes the play explores is how we relate to history. Who we choose to remember and why. Sometimes as in the case of Rhodes must fall and as will become evident when watching Contested Bodies, faeces needs to be flung at certain historical figures in order to exorcise the demons associated with those narratives. And yes – there are many parallel narratives in the play – the play is in essence a conversation between the present and the past.”

Power, domination, gender, trauma – our bodies and our colonial past

Why Contested Bodies – now- 2022? Marcel Meyer: “Contested Bodies is all about now – all about, power and domination, gender, the trauma of how we deal with our bodies and our colonial past. In the play we look back at the present through the lens of the past. The pandemic really reshaped consciousness in the world and highlighted so many of the evils which we glossed over but the pandemic really brought to the fore. We really wanted to create a piece that spoke to these issues – but sometimes it becomes more interesting to look at topical issues through a different lens and hence the historical setting for the play.”

Power play between bodies, both physical and metaphorical

The play is part of Abrahamse and Meyer Productions Summer Season 2021/22 of World Theatre. There was The Lady Aoi, by Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima and two Tennessee Williams plays- Streetcar Named Desire and One Arm. Now into the mix, you are presenting Contested Bodies: An “outrage for the stage”. A leitmotif of “contested bodies” runs through the other plays but the other plays are set in the USA? Marcel Meyer:  “Contested Bodies is the culmination of our entire season of world theatre – how people and cultures from across the globe look at bodies in contest. From Asia we had Mishima’s modern Noh masterpiece The Lady Aoi that explored a body being possessed by the spirit of a mistress scorned, then we got an American perspective on the subject of bodies in the Williams plays: In Streetcar we saw how Blanche’s fragile body is dominated by the brutal force of Stanley’s body and then in One Arm, Williams explores the self-loathing a young man feels for himself when his body is mutilated in a car-accident and yet his mutilated body is desired by hundreds of men.  This play takes the exploration of our relationship with our bodies to the extreme and looks at the power play between bodies, both physical and metaphorical. How bodies are in conflict with themselves and with each other – how different bodies try to dominate and subjugate other bodies.”

Unspoken truths

From what I have gathered from you, there is a performance aspect to Contested Bodies? Marcel Meyer: “The play is performative in that the major action of the play is developed through a ‘play-within-the-play’ device. Barry, Somerset, and John, for their evening’s entertainment enact a lascivious play penned by the Marquis de Sade titled Contested Bodies or The Emperor, The Empress and I. The enactment of the De Sade play reveals many unspoken truths and recalibrates the men’s friendship and relationship with each other.

Lush and stylised imagining

Time frame? Marcel Meyer: “The play functions on many levels and timeframes simultaneously, so, in essence the action of the play takes place in a theatre in the present time, also in the residence of the Governor of the Cape Colony in 1824 and then once we enter the world of the De Sade play the action shifts to various locations in Paris in 1803 and 1804. There is no soundscape in this play at all. Regarding the set and costumes, the setting is a lush and stylised imagining of the Governor’s residence in the Cape Colony – a blood red space, with a back-drop of 50 meters of cascading red crushed taffeta and an enormous crystal chandelier. The costumes are all in black, white, and gold.

Overlapping narratives

Insights into taking the Dr Barry story to stage and the framing against Rhodes Must Fall? Marcel Meyer:  “In the wake of Rhodes Must Fall, the murder of George Floyd and the world-wide call to action by the Black-Lives-Matter movement we really felt the need to make a play that addressed some of these issues and Contested Bodies is the production of this exploration. The play was written during hard lock-down, and we had an initial reading of the play with actors on Zoom, when restrictions were eased, we had another in person reading of the play and now finally the play is getting a full production. As with all new writing – these various readings have proved very useful in the shaping of the play toward the version of it that will finally be performed when the play opens this week.”

Roses in the publicity shots

What is with the roses in the publicity pics?  Marcel Meyer:  “Roses are loaded with symbolic meaning that would subliminally speak to viewers and hint at themes the play explores. The Rose is the national flower of England and hence linked to our colonial past, but at the same time, the rose was also adopted as a symbol in early socialist imagery and the call for a more just world-order is also central to the play. Roses are also representative of passion and love, themes also explored in Contested Bodies and Roses are also closely associated with queer iconography, so they seemed the perfect accessory for the photoshoot.”

Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I

Premiere season, March 16–April 2, 2022, Artscape Arena, Cape Town

Creative credits:

Script: Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer
Starring: Matthew Baldwin, Marcel Meyer and Lungile Lallie
Direction and design: Fred Abrahamse
Lighting design: Faheem Bardien
Costume design: Marcel Meyer
Producer: Abrahamse and Meyer Productions. The play is part of its Summer Season 2021/22

✳ Images by Fiona MacPherson. Supplied.

A rose is a rose is a rose: Left to right- Matthew Baldwin, Marcel Meyer and Lungile Lallie. Pic: Fiona MacPherson.

✳Pics: Fiona MacPherson. Images supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: