Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bette Bourne: A Life in Three Acts

I was hesitant to write a review of the show I saw on Saturday at the St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, since as far as I can tell, it ended an extensive tour (mostly in the UK) the following day.  Writing about it seemed rude, maybe even cruel, especially since I intend to rave a bit.  I saw something great, you don't get to.  Sucks to be you.  I'm writing about it though, because I think the person at its center deserves to be celebrated.   

A Life in Three Acts is a shaped recreation of interviews the playwright Mark Ravenhill did with his new friend, the performer Bette Bourne, about her life.  As thrilled as I was at subject matter, having been a fan of Bourne's since the early nineties, I was initially a bit leery of this format.  It's not without problems, but Bourne is a gifted storyteller with some fantastic material, Ravenhill a friendly presence, and the connection between them created a warm, relaxed atmosphere.  

The evening starts with Bourne's working class childhood in WWII London.  We meet his "gifted amateur" mum who helps kindle his love for theatre, and his frequently abusive father.  Over his father's objections, Bourne pursues a career as an actor, first attending the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, then almost immediately landing a job at the Old Vic. 

In 1969 he and fellow rising star Ian MacKellan toured the world with rep productions of Edward II and Richard II; a short exerpt of  a recording is played; we hear Bourne speaking the role of Kent. His artist boyfriend Rex, upon seeing him perform, is less than impressed however; "there was nothing of you in it," he announces.  This statement, as perplexing or painful as it must have been to hear at the time, strikes a nerve for Bourne. 

Rex is also the man who encourages Bourne to attend a Gay Liberation Front Meeting.  At first he goes for the cruising (Rex promises loads of gorgeous guys), but is quickly captivated by the ideas and discussions.  This political awakening naturally triggers a self-exploration of identity, and being an actor, perhaps it's not surprising that Bourne's exploration includes costuming.  We see a photo of him in what he calls his Che Guevara drag; he mentions, in one of his many seemingly tossed-off thoughts, "those boots didn't even fit me." An important discovery is on the way though.  At one of the meetings, when another fellow denounces the proceedings as nothing but cruising, Bourne says "I felt the crown of this queen rising up in me."  Perhaps no one is more surprised than he that when the queen chews the other fellow out, she does so in the voice of "a Cockney fishwife."  It will surprise none of us who have ever been part of a political group that this Cockney fishwife is quickly offered a position on the steering committee.  

By this point Bourne is working at a stall in a market (not, it would seem, acting) where, inspired by the queens at the meetings, he buys a dress he sees.  With a friend's encouragement and company, he eventually wears it to a meeting, even  braving the cobblestoned streets in heels.  The experience is both freeing and revealing, as she recognizes just how vulnerable this clothing (and nascent new identity) makes her.  Anyone who has worn heels on a completely flat floor, let alone cobblestones, can probably relate. Drag becomes an important new avenue to explore.

Soon she and other "working class queens" at the meetings notice that while they're the ones doing all the set-up, clean-up, tea preparation and such, university-educated members dominate the meetings, spouting off about the latest theories of liberation politics.  Realizing that the theories rarely tell them anything they didn't already know from experience, a group of the working class queens separate from the group to form an anarchic drag commune. 

We remember this is swinging Seventies London, right? 

For six years Bourne, thirteen or so other queens, three women, two children, an older woman and her boyfriend share all money earned, two rooms of a London squat and what appears to have been an extensive and fabulous wardrobe.  Pot, LSD and sex are part of the mix as well, of course.  Some of the greatest stories, naturally, come out of this time.  There's the early morning police raid that ends when the young bobbies find themselves face to face with fourteen beautiful naked young men--several of them "proud, as one often is first thing in the morning"--and leave quickly with no arrests.  Bourne does find herself in court at least once, following a demonstration, but even her refusal to remove her hat ("it matches the shoes") doesn't appear to have earned her any jail time. 

The arrival of harder drugs and their dealers eventually encourages her to leave the commune and despite a six year gap, she is able to land acting work immediately. The return to acting is welcome, in part because Bourne felt that part of herself wasn't taken seriously by other members of the commune, but she still hopes for a greater synthesis of her identities as actor, gender outlaw and gay activist.  

Enter the Hot Peaches.  This flamboyant theatre company is before my time, I have to let the link do most of the heavy lifting regarding background, but for Bourne it was just the thing she'd been looking for.  The costuming and make-up are outrageous and over-the-top yet anchored by writing and acting of the highest caliber.  She eventually tours throughout Europe with them, and when they head off to America, she stays behind in England and forms her own company, Bloolips

Bloolips was my introduction to Bette Bourne, and I'd be willing to bet that was probably true for most other members of Saturday's audience.  How to describe a Bloolips show?  Never having seen the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Hot Peaches or The Ridiculous Theatre, I can't tell you where--or if--this company fits into the pantheon.  I've also read that Bloolips drew on the traditions of English music hall, Pantos and American Vaudeville (interesting to note all three traditions made frequent use of drag).  All that seems valid and worth mentioning, but the company was still like nothing I had ever seen.  The production I saw in Seattle in the early 90s, titled Get-Hur, was a campy, deleriously silly look at the love affair between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Antinous.  The costumes and make-up were so outlandish they weren't drag so much as clown, the writing was farce at its best with silly songs, big tap dance numbers, rauchy humor such as a character whose ass lit up if anyone paid it compliments,("I've never seen it myself," he says) but on a dime the actors--most notably Bourne--could shift gears and take us into moments of rich emotional truth. This is the only Bloolips show I ever saw (the company has since disbanded), but I've been a fan ever since.  

The company toured internationally and developed a substantial cult following.  I wonder how many actors there are left who have managed to develop such a huge and passionate fan base almost solely from live theatre? And from flamboyant drag/clown/spectacle/political theatre at that?  Probably not many since the days of Vaudeville.  

At seventy Bourne is still working steadily, recently playing the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the New Globe, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, and portraying her friend Quentin Crisp in a solo show.  In many ways it would appear the world has finally caught up with her, and she's able to move cheerfully back and forth between mainstream theatre and experimental projects.  Like Crisp, she carved out space for an identity that felt most true to her inner being, and built a life that fit her like a glove. 

*I've still got more to say, but this has gotten rather epic already.  If you'd like more of my ramblings, go here.*


  1. Well as I live and bloody breathe, are you the Bette nee Peter who fell in love with Rex of Gordon Mansions? I remember you with enormous love and gratitude at dinner with eye-shadow. You did my hair in the most magical way; you dressed us, loved us, nagged us; you were beautiful and generous. I am so glad you are still alive and kicking.

  2. Megan: I think you may have the right person. Bette's name at birth was Peter (no idea if anyone calls him that any longer) one of his first great loves was Rex, and I think I even remember him (Bette) mentioning Gordon Mansions in the show. Just to be clear though, I'm not Bette myself, I was just lucky enough to see a show he performed here in Brooklyn. Your description of his character certainly rings true with my impressions. I'm jealous you got to know him. He is very much alive and kicking, still beautiful, and living in Notting Hill.