A story about transsexuality, self-identity and sacrifice. Witty and gut-wrenching, stylised and simple. Can a single production encompass all these things and leave an audience wanting more? Seldom. Then along comes Rotterdam.
Jon Brittain’s exceptional story starts with Alice (Alice McCarthy) and Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman) in a city they don’t want to be in, concealing their lies from all others. Maybe they’re hiding from themselves too. Except in the first scene Fiona (Freeman) announces that she wishes to transition to a man – Adrian has been born into the wrong body and is now accepting of this.
Brittain’s story ends with Alice (McCarthy) and Adrian (Freeman) too, on the cusp on finally leaving the city they don’t want to be in, the lies exposed for all to see. Her hand forced by an immature, lustful fling with co-worker Lelani (Ellie Morris), Alice (McCarthy) finally faces her demons – the insecurity of who she is, what she wants and who she loves. So wrapped up in loving a gender and labelling herself with sexual preference, she fails to realise the person beneath until it’s almost too late.
But is it ok that Alice is upset when Fiona transitions into Adrian, the decision practically finalised before gauging her opinion? Is it wrong for Alice to love Fiona but not Adrian – the same person with a different body? Donnacadh O’Briain deftly poses these questions, leaving the audience quizzical, yearning for more and desperate for an answer to the unanswerable. The beautiful irony of boxing individuals in to acceptable ideals manifests itself in Ellan Parry’s Scandinavian, cubic set – its true emphasis hits hardest during the second half, amid fights and fears and faults.
Parry contrasts the brilliant white backdrop with neon brightness that Richard Williamson mimics in his lighting design. The glares of block colour perfectly punctuate Eales-White’s underlying electronic-acoustic sound fusion. Scene changes become events, highlighting the escapist haze of Rotterdam and its seductive pull into acquiescence.
Most of the transitions are carried out by reliable, supportive Josh (Ed Eales-White) – ex-boyfriend to one and brother to the other. Ever-accepting and steady, Eales-White gives a comically warming performance to reveal more layers than perhaps even Brittain may have realised were within the character. It’s a contrast in personality, but not in capability, to Morris, who attacks Lelani with gusto. Morris effortlessly highlights the emotional immaturity of the younger generation – a devil-may-care attitude that seduces the most upright of individuals but burns them just as fast.
Both supporting characters are constants, proud of who they are and unapologetic of their quirks or angles. The ever-shifting sands that unhinge Alice and Adrian’s foundations are stabilised by Lelani and Josh. Around the central pair however, O’Briain and Brittain constantly switch focus, muddying the waters around which arguments are considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in Alice and Adrian’s ongoing debate. Fiona’s transition to Adrian may imply a behavioural shift – or is it simply someone finally giving up on trying to be who they fundamentally aren’t? Alice appears unaccepting of her partner’s decision – or is she justified in being presented with an unfathomable emotional minefield?
Both McCarthy and Freeman take on parts that would challenge the most masterful of theatrical craftspeople, but are so at ease within Rotterdam’s inherent uneasiness that it’s difficult to imagine them having had to rehearse at all. McCarthy is consistently effortless, the centre in every scene as she is slowly backed into a corner, less and less able to escape into her own cowardice.
Freeman by contrast is full of effort, of pain and emotional impact. This performance must call upon every ounce of inner strength in her possession – it certainly feels as though she pours everything into the second half. Emotional rollercoaster doesn’t begin to cover it as Freeman’s explosive, raw outbursts shatter any bar set by her contemporaries and redefine the parameters by which future actors can be measured against. These breakdowns are truly ground-breaking.
O’Briain ends Rotterdam with yet more contrast – a juxtaposition of Lelani’s dismay with Alice and Adrian’s muted, but hopeful, reconciliation. Blunt and apt, it promises nothing and in doing so concludes a production that delivers everything.
Director: Donnacadh O’Briain
Producer: Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook for Hartshorn-Hook Productions
Writer: Jon Brittain
Design: Ellan Parry; Richard Williamson (lighting); Keegan Curran (sound)
Cast: Anna Martine Freeman; Alice McCarthy; Ellie Morris; Ed Eales-White
Rotterdam plays the Arts Theatre until 15 July 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.