Where Are All The Fucking Queers?

Hefty spoilers for Common and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.

This is why I went to see Common.

Somewhere between the casting hype and the audience review furore, this rehearsal photo incessantly sprang to the top of my Facebook feed every day for about two weeks.

Oh how I wanted to Book Now! I screengrabbed it and sent it to at least three friends with the caption “QUEERS???!!! 😍”

I waited eagerly for the reviews, to see if my hopes were confirmed (women are, you see, ‘just friends’ about 99% of the time) and was frankly astounded when few made more than passing reference to the central relationship in the play, and the defining characteristic of its lead character, Mary.

Mary is all eaten up by her queerness — she exudes it, it motivates almost everything she does. How, I thought, is no one else excited about this? Are they under the mistaken apprehension that this is an element of diversity we’re suddenly done with? Come on folks, you had that Cate Blanchett film like two years ago. Isn’t that enough?

We never, I repeat EVER, get a story all about queer women and what they want on our main stages, and even when someone attempts to stage existing writing, they fuck it all up.

Jesus, I thought. Criticism has forgotten its job. BLOGGING has forgotten its job.

Venues; the so-called ‘pink pound’ is not just about gay men. If you so much as have a background character cast another woman a meaningful look, I. Will. Come. To. Your. Show. If. Humanly. Possible.

I digress.

Reviews come out. Mary is a bombastic, sweary lesbian* who has returned to the town where she grew up, in search of her lover Laura. I wonder why the fuck we’ve had weeks of marketing guff about enclosure. I buy a ticket.

Election night is a weird time to see this play. I don’t think for one second it’s a piece about land or class or politics, but there are some incredibly resonant lines in there. The language is that of skirting a precipice, of awaiting a new dawn — of a world changing and not necessarily for the better. It’s Dickens meets Soviet propaganda, the tide of the Industrial Revolution tugging at its feet. The audience practically vibrates. We rush to the cloakroom as the exit polls are published, utterances of surprise rippling along the queue.

But despite seeing it through a lens of exhausted political anxiety, there’s no way I can make sense of Common actually being about enclosure. Despite the claims of the production itself, and almost every critic, this is a piece that is in the main about gender — and the land is merely a reflection of the barren relationships that play out atop it.

The primary question for me is not whether it’s good, or even what the hell is going on (the plot is perfectly comprehensible, if not the most convincing…), but why on earth this was written by a man.

It is perhaps unfair of me, but I have no idea what would motivate a man to write a play largely devoid of male sexual agency. From King, the brother of Mary’s former partner and adopted sister Laura, to Lord the landowner and Heron, his right hand man — all are impotent as the ground they till and fight over.

It is, if anything, jarring to be immersed in a narrative universe populated by such men, and confounds what we are taught about how they respond to women who are sexually confident — who are almost invariably punished through sexual violence.

And oh is Mary confident. She presides over the stage, alternately character and narrator, always finding time for a cheeky (or filthy) aside. Mary is here to tell us how the world is, and Mary is a liar. A slippery, unknowable creature cloaked in bombast and swearing and need.

She burns. With anger, with sardonic wit, with desire.

Everything in you (me) strains to love her, but she is opaque and ever shifting. Not ten feet away from my second row seat, she might be in another world. I am generally of the opinion that Anne-Marie Duff could hold an audience for a dramatised reading of the phone book, yet here she feels buttoned in to her costume — alternately penned in by the language and delighting in it.

Yet Mary is the closest you will get to a real character in Common. Her intangibility would function if contrasted by whole, complete inhabitants of this world, but there are none. Others merely fade up from the dirt and back down into it. As though we experience them all through her delusion. She is the only one who bleeds and screams and feels alive, even when you’re half convinced she may have been dead all along.

Cush Jumbo is painfully, criminally underused as Laura. Without any knowledge of what the cuts were, or where they were made (I went two nights after press — to the newly svelte 40 mins shorter version), I have no idea whether Laura was ever more fleshed out character. Finally seeing a main stage production with two queer women of colour (Lois Chimimba plays Young Hannah, later seduced by Mary) I was left wishing they had benefitted from better writing. More agency. More care.

Mary’s is a passionate and consuming hunger, she has clawed her way out of London and back to this bare earth for this woman — who has, it seems, faded to almost nothing in her hard, cold life. But there’s no responsive spark of passion or even of anger in Laura — all of her love is served up in words only, and she holds herself within her body’s borders.

Her ultimate rejection of Mary makes no sense — she has no demonstrated attachment to the land, which frustrates her, and her affection for her brother is more obstinate than caring. Much of the second act consists of what ought to be crimes of passion — but we have no sense of their passion.

What should be the sorely needed emotional core of the play is ultimately derailed by… incest. (Yeah, what?)

It’s thoroughly unclear why this is such an overwhelming theme in Common, but it crops up everywhere. King’s apparently unreciprocated passion for his sister Laura; Heron’s inappropriate attraction to his mother — brought up for no obvious reason at all — and the tinge of it to Mary and Laura’s relationship. Raised as sisters, though not in blood, and eventually finding themselves in the same bed. If anything, it serves to invalidate their love — we see nothing of the affection they once shared, instead they cling to the boundaries of their existence like octopi in a jar. Forever in each other’s orbit, but never touching. It’s sadnessfrustrating.

Mary is permitted far more chemistry with Young Hannah than with Laura

Even though the NT have made the conscious decision to centre a queer relationship on stage, it still brought almost none of what I spend my theatregoing life waiting for — while I endure seeing women struck and spat upon and raped. Time after time after time after time after time after time after time after time.

What I want is to see is the normalcy of female intimacy. And no, that doesn’t always have to be sexual. Just women who love each other. Why does this so very, very rarely appear in our main houses? Why is it impossible to determine from marketing copy whether women are friends or in love? Why have the NT staged this, but are unable to admit what it’s about on their own website?

Our narratives seem to feel the need to reach back into the mists of time to depict female queerness — it is a truth universally acknowledged that a queer woman on a main stage must be in possession of a bustle. Is female intimacy only possible as a fanciful historical imagining? In contrast, much of the work depicting gay men is firmly rooted in the 20th and 21st century. The now or almost-now. They walk among us!

I just... I’m tired. Really quite tired. I would like to see lives and relationships on stage that I can relate to. Queer and trans and non-binary people are not a niche interest group, we just want to see ourselves in the art we’re paying to attend.

I’m bi, so you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s at least something for me in the storytelling of straight relationships. Yeah, sometimes. But not really. There’s a sort of internalised anxiety to straightness that spills out all over the place. You can feel it in the writing. A tingling sense that something’s slightly off — usually the power balance. A gradual pushing at a facet of your identity that tells you this is Not For You.

Straights find bisexuality very confusing, poor lambs.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was an interesting road test for my internalised pre-conceptions about this. I went not knowing who had written it. A bi character appeared. Interest piqued. Also suspicion. (For reference, bi characters in anything are, in order of probability; exceedingly promiscuous, horny, cheating, ‘confused’ or faking it).

In play in which pretty much everyone is promiscuous and horny, there was a fun opportunity here, and Dawn Sievewright is fucking fantastic as Fionnoula. I loved her. But. She gets the shittiest deal. Kissing the ultimately-straight-I’m-really-sorry girl, and leaving with a pat on the head and a blessing to be who she is and love who she wants? Woah, no thanks.

Our Ladies isn’t about coming out on top though, or finding the perfect person — it’s about all the giddy messiness of being a teenager (and then some — what even is magic mushroom ale?). Is the pain of falling for a straight girl a valid expression of bi experience? Yeah, it is one. Only one of many, though. And no one else in the play needs to be forgiven for their sexuality, or have it approved. Within a wider landscape of theatre where I rarely to never see teenage girls being openly, unashamedly queer… it stings. This, I thought, is not For Me. This writer is either a man, or straight. Or both.

Common, which in its latter half is taken up by an obsession with Mary’s pregnancy, also betrayed its origins. Would a queer female writer be so obsessed with her lead carrying a boy, basically against her will, calling it her heir? All the hatred in Mary’s life is perpetuated by men, and she seems to love them not. Her frankness about previous abortions during her time as a sex worker and her initial desperation to be rid of this pregnancy make desiring a child, and a boy at that, seem wholly unlikely. It’s half-heartedly touted as her reason for coming back to seek Laura, but her need, her basic want for her former partner is raw and brutal and brilliant. It is a universe apart from anything so sedate as co-parenting plans.

It nudged at me again. This is not For You. Not quite recognisable. Not written by Your Kind.

I… don’t have a tidy end to this. It’s been lying in my drafts since June for probably this reason. It’s instinctive to want a conclusion, or at least some recommendations. Yet this is only how I feel as a cis white non-disabled woman; when representation does happen, it’s most likely to look like me. How fucking exhausting to be a trans person of colour, to be non-binary and neurodiverse, to be a lesbian with a hearing impairment looking to see yourself on our main stages.

Everyone needs to do way fucking better.

Critics: NOTICE THIS. BE LOUD ABOUT IT. DEMAND BETTER.

Audiences: NOTICE THIS. BE LOUD ABOUT IT. DEMAND BETTER.

Venues: Hire queer writers. Amie Taylor at LGBT Arts Review has launched Raising Our Voices, to give LBT+ writers a platform. She’s just received Arts Council funding, so this project will continue. Go to these nights. Find and develop these writers. When someone turns in a play with only straight characters, ask why. If their queer characters don’t represent intersectional identities, ask why. If your colleagues keep raising these issues and you’re not listening, ASK WHY.

To everyone waiting, constantly waiting, for main houses to improve; I’m so sorry. Let’s hang out at CPT.

* Reviews approximated Mary as a lesbian character. I do read her similarly — she is quite clear that women are for pleasure and men are for gain. But, there were moments that gave me pause, which is why I refer to both her and Laura as queer. Because Mary does sleep with men and we don’t always know how she feels about that. And because I don’t feel we understand enough of Laura to define her. There is more than enough erasure of bi and other identities, and sexuality is an ever-shifting spectrum.