The Poetry We Make at VAULT Festival is a beautifully performed exploration of relationships and memories, Dolly Parton and, most importantly, reactions to gender transitions.

When Elliot (Elena Voce) discovers that the love of her life Robin (Elijah W. Harris) has commenced a transition to a woman, she begins to question everything she knew about Robin and their relationship. The play switches between past and present, as Elliot wrestles with memories that seem so at odds with the image of Robin she now has. Surprisingly, The Poetry We Make chooses to focus on the reactions of those surrounding Robin, such as his ex-girlfriend and his close friend Paul (Sam Thorpe-Spinks). As the play unravels, we see his friends make a transition of their own – from anger and confusion, to acceptance.

The play embodies an interesting meta-concept… Dolly Parton. Yes, you read that right. Elliot has an imaginary friend, a heroine, an embodiment of consciousness and it comes in the form of Dolly Parton (Mia Hall). As Elliot refuses to accept Robin as a woman, she is slowly brought round by consistent, yet kind, argument from Dolly, whose presence fills the stage (particularly when she sings) and whose luridly pink outfit matches the entire set. It’s surreal, yes, but it’s a concept that holds water – storytelling through Dolly’s songs is a concept quickly established and consistently carried out. Dolly’s presence also serves as a reminder of those who embody a reality of their choosing and who are comfortable in their own bodies and clothing. As Elliot fiercely says,

“She [Dolly] knows what she looks like because she designed it”.

The Poetry We Make has opened the door to a conversation well worth having and the performance achieves a nice balance between poignancy and humour. Paul helps Robin apply make-up and a wig, while also warning Robin to be “careful” as they’re going on a “guy’s night out”, which is designed for the men to be away from nagging woman. It’s interesting to see Paul attempt to navigate the conversation – he is clearly trying (and failing) not to upset Robin, and simultaneously not knowing what to say or do at all. As long as Robin is not too loud, too obvious, too transgender… ultimately, Paul is not only worried about his friend’s safety, but presumably about how he, as Robin’s friend, will be perceived by their male friends. Writer Jaswinder-Blackwell Pal is careful not to put blame on anyone – Robin is still trying to piece everything together, Paul and Elliot are still trying to work out how to move on. That too, the playwright suggests, is okay.

Vault Festival 2018 The Poetry We Make

Towards the end of the show, the two actors stand apart, each speaking into a microphone, despite having an intimate conversation with the other – Edwina Strobl‘s subtle deconstruction of their relationship makes the scene so powerful. The line between public and private has become blurred and they can no longer communicate with each other as they used to. There is also a subtle yet impactful shift from using “he/him” when referring to Robin, to, by the end of the play, using “she” pronouns. Movement director Carissa Rickeard uses small pockets of movement to highlight memorable moments, or else to slickly transition between scenes. However, the play moves wildly between the beautifully subtle and more on-the-nose moments, with Dolly asking intentionally thought-provoking questions,

“How much do I have to take off or put on before I’m real”?

The non-chronological sequences take a little getting used to and more clarity is needed in establishing at what point of the relationship the audience is seeing. On one hand, the structure is entirely logical, because Elliot is trying to reconstruct her memories. On the other hand, it’s frustrating that, from an audience perspective, an understanding of the decline requires a stronger structural grasp than the show offers. The Poetry We Make explores power dynamics, gender and identity in relationships – with a nice dose of the Dolly Parton serenade!

 

 

★★★☆☆

The Poetry We Make runs until 11 February 2018 as part of the VAULT Festival. For further information, please visit the venue website.