Bullish (Orbit Festival)
Lucy J Skilbeck
In Leo J Skilbeck’s Bullish the legend of Asterion, the Minotaur of Ancient Crete, acts as a metaphor for people who identify as trans. After all, Asterion is neither man nor bull but, being Bullish, has the features of both, is struggling through a maze and has been isolated for a long time.
Asterion tiring of waiting for Theseus, whose coming is foretold, leaves the labyrinth and sets out on a quest towards gender change that risks alienating parents and attracting hostility and danger.
Plays concerning the challenges facing people who identify as trans tend to be based upon the experiences of the author and to be written as monologues. Skilbeck widens the focus, and so the appeal, of the play by incorporating viewpoints from concerned parents, baffled liberals and macho men.
Like Asterion, all of the characters are struggling to find their way out of a complex maze although theirs is psychological rather than physical. Asterion has to cope with the indifferent bureaucracy associated with transitioning such as medical professionals who refuse to confirm they have received confirmation the process can commence. A mother struggles to understand how she could have behaved differently when confronted by a child wishing to transition. A well-meaning liberal is anxious not to give offence but cannot avoid showing her ignorance by considering one’s sexuality and nature to be simply matters of science ("I’m a woman so I can’t read maps").
Most striking of all is Theseus who is both the foe of the Minotaur and the idealisation of the concept of masculinity. While Bullish deals with serious subjects, it does not present them in a dour manner. Theseus rises from the audience and struts onto the stage in marvellous parody of macho behaviour and self-regarding Acting (definitely with a capital ‘A’). There is the sense of someone whose aggression shows he regards the trans situation as threatening his perception of masculinity prompting the Minotaur to consider transitioning to that sort of man is not appealing.
The play is co-directed by Skilbeck with Ruby Glaskin and Adam Robertson who are not in the least afraid of mixing styles. The script is lyrical and might work as well as a monologue but dividing the lines between the five members of the cast (Krishna Istha, Cairo Nevitt, Lucy Jane Parkinson, Adam Robertson and Amelia Stubberfield, who also devised the play) adds a rhythm that nudges the lines closer to poetic blank verse.
The directors chop and change styles at a moment’s notice; deciding that a political point might be better made if delivered as a song and dance number, the cast launch into one of David Lewington’s songs and a routine choreographed by Anni Rossi. In a sequence that comes close to being over-cute, the parents of the cast join them on stage.
Bullish tackles serious subjects and does not avoid the gravity of the situation but the original and highly entertaining manner of presentation ensures the play is not just preaching to the converted and has a wide appeal for all audiences.