Review: Mind blowing new South African play Contested Bodies, rages against domination, racism, genderism and a lot more
|Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I |
When and where: March 16–April 2, 2022, Artscape Arena, Cape Town
Booking: Computicket/Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695
Direct booking link: https://tickets.computicket.com/event/contested_bodies/7178812
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]
Script: Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer
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
Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I-is a new South African play and it is mind-blowing. It is challenging to stage a newly hatched play. Often one says: “interesting but needs work”. Contested Bodies is a flawless piece of theatre with a finely crafted script. Every word has been deliberately selected to create a rapid fire deprecatory dialogue which is laced with fury, satire, bitter mirth and humanity. The cast of three is breathtaking. Matthew Baldwin, Marcel Meyer and Lungile Lallie deliver multi nuanced performances which are each worthy of awards. The set and design (Abrahamse) – plush red velvet, chaise lounge – grand crystal chandelier is sumptuous, alluring and seductive. Lighting designer, Faheem Bardien has bathed the stage in red, reminiscent of a bordello in a red light district, frequented by men of entitlement and privilege who reckon that they are important and can do what they want as they recline and loll about. We are lured into this world of decadence as we watch a play within a play unfold. The protagonists shed their frippery, uniforms, costumes and reveal themselves as manipulators and subjugators – well except the ‘I’ in the play title – the manservant, John Nobody, played by Lungile Lallie who also plays himself, now, in Cape Town 2022. Fred Abrahamse’s direction is a masterclass – pulling together overlapping time lines which are thrust seamlessly into an epic play of marvel, revulsion, rage and at the same time, fabulously entertaining.
The play hinges on the central narrative with the three protagonists -Dr James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and Mr John Nobody. We gaze at them through a contemporary prism, referencing recent Fallist movements in South Africa, colonialism; contested bodies – of masculinity, gender, sexuality, race, prejudice, countries and much more. Within the nexus of the threesome, we watch a play within a play as Dr Barry, Lord Charles and John. take on roles in a theatrical game which ends with a denouement; of debasement, shame and a plea for accountability.
The Bard in Contested Bodies
Abrahamse and Meyer have worked extensively with Shakespearean texts and have evoked the Bard in this play, so he is almost another character – casting his scrutiny on the contested bodies in question. Lord Charles brags that he is descendant of Richard III- and alludes to the king’s remains being apparently excavated in a parking lot (in Leicester, England in 2012). Watch out for Marcel Meyer’s wow of a Richard III cameo. There is interlude with Shylock’s famous, Hath not a Jew eyes? monologue, from The Merchant of Venice: ”If you prick us do we not bleed….?”
Bitterly humorous and entertaining
Contested Bodies could have become an issue and protest piece, but the result is a mind-flip of a play which is darkly humorous – and funny and fun – in parts. There is nudity, swearing (fabulously enunciated with the Queen’s English – imagine Charles and Camilla with their plummy accents letting rip) and moment of culpability – plot spoiler – smearing of faeces. At the start, we are warned by Lungile Lallie, playing himself; in his own body, that we might feel uncomfortable and we should leave while the theatre door is open. I personally did not find the play “offensive”. It is an interrogation of bodies which are contested – physical and emotional. There are bodies as in gender. Bodies may be countries. Ideas and world views may be contested.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
A leitmotif in the play is the refrain of the French motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité: Liberty, equality, fraternity. It is the national motto for France and Haiti and is said to have originated in the French revolution- an extreme time of bodies in contest, with many getting the chop, by guillotine. Liberty, equality and fraternity are malleable concepts – and tend to be manipulated by bad intentioned small minded power grabbers. Where is ‘accountability’ in the motto? We continue to see evil men who want to occupy, subjugate and plunder others; who relish in the exoticism of the “other” and take their pleasure at the same time. They mock and disparage those who pleasuring them. In this play, we see Napoleon strutting around: Bugger to all of you – I will just take what I want. It is not just in a sexual sense. There is an intent to occupy, colonise, use and then go back home to the mother land – England or wherever. The play happens to reverberate right now as we watch Putin, devastating the Ukraine: Countries as contested bodies. For what?
The bravura life and times of Dr James Barry
Let’s circle back to the title of the play, Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and provide insight for those not familiar with the bravura life and times of Dr James Barry. Barry was born a woman in Ireland in about 1789 and was brought up in that gender but he identified as a man. Coupled with that, in those days, it was not possible to practice as a surgeon so it was natural progression for him to take on the body of a man- both as an expression of his gender identity and as a means to follow his passion to become a surgeon. He received his degree at the prestigious University of Edinburgh Medical School. Dr Barry became a legendary army surgeon in the Cape Colony. He is purported to be the first surgeon in Africa to have carried out a successful caesarean section in which the mother and baby survived. The doc consorted with big players in the sh*t8hole of a ‘little fishing village” (as it is referred to in the play), such as Sir Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape. On the death of Dr Barry, in 1865 (aged 75–76), in London, his biological gender was outed. The James Barry story is remarkable in that he was able to transcend his body – which was in contest with his identity – and live as his true self- in a time of social constraints, unflinching racism, tight delineations of masculinity and certainly before we had pronouns to denote genders- binary and non-binary. Contested Bodies is not THE James Barry story. Go and watch to learn more about his relationship with Lord Charles and John Nobody and be moved at the courage and resolution it must have taken for Barry to hold it together. Matthew Baldwin is a tour de force as he embodies Barry as a human- not as woman masquerading as a man.
Rousing play – a howl for accountability and acceptance
Abrahamse and Meyer have used the tripartite framework of Dr Barry, Lord Charles and John Nobody to unleash a ripper of a comedy of manners (bad, manners of shock and spew) in a riveting play- a howl for accountability and acceptance. Contested Bodies is the third play in Abrahamse and Meyer Productions’ Summer Season 2021/22 of World Theatre and is a rousing finale to an exceptional season of theatre. I loved this play. Go and see it.
✳Featured image: Marcel Meyer as and Lord Charles Somerset and Matthew Baldwin as Dr James Barry, in Contested Bodies or Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and I, by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer. World premiere at Artscape, Cape Town, March 2022. Pic: Fiona MacPherson. Images supplied.