Woman of Many Faces
SYDNEY: Four notorious figures in queer history are brought to life in this bold one-woman show, part of the Mardi Gras Festival. By Lachlan Bennett.
An incarcerated cross-dresser, a gay cabaret performer, a lesbian BBC broadcaster and an Australian-American actress – these are four historical figures whose lives are dramatised in a new cabaret that combines history, music and comedy.
Trouser Wearing Characters is a one-woman show based on the real life stories of Colonel Victor Barker, Douglas Byng, Nancy Spain and Coral Browne.
The cabaret is entirely written and performed by UK historian and journalist Rose Collis and features a number of original songs performed on the banjolele – an instrument that’s a cross between a banjo and ukulele.
A biographical author and performer in the 70s and 80s, Collis wrote Trouser Wearing Characters because she wanted to bring “stranger than fiction” tales and unknown stories of people she’d researched to a broader audience.
“For me as someone who writes and talks a lot about history, it’s really important to share, particularly queer history, with people in a way that they don’t think is tedious,” Collis tells SX.
“I’m always researching stuff and I’m always looking at ways of bringing those stories to people in an entertaining an accessible way so they are not going to sit there twiddling their thumbs. I don’t like to lecture people, I like to entertain them as well as inform them.”
One particularly intriguing story featured in Trouser Wearing Characters is that of Valerie Arkell-Smith, or as she is better known, Colonel Victor Barker.
Barker was a cross-dresser who spent six years married to another woman who was unaware of her true identity. In 1929, this marriage was the centre of a scandalous London trial that resulted in Barker’s imprisonment.
Collis says the lives of all four characters featured in Trouser Wearing Characters are filled with anecdotes just as interesting and inspiring as Barker’s.
“These people really danced to the beat of their own drum and some at a time that would’ve been very difficult for them. Whether they were a gay man, or a cross-dressing woman or a very confident maverick woman, they all took huge risks and they all did it their way. And I really admire people like that, whatever their sexuality,” Collis says.
After touring New Zealand, Trouser Wearing Characters is coming to Sydney to be part of the Mardi Gras arts program which Collis describes as “the highlight of the tour”.
“I really do love Sydney, so I’m thrilled to be coming to do the show,” she says. “It’s just a fantastic city with a great queer community.”
“It’s world famous, the Sydney Mardi Gras, for all the right reasons. So for me to take the show there is just fantastic and I think it’s [the show’s] natural home.”
[Image] Queer history comes alive ... Rose Collis in Trouser Wearing Characters.
Trouser Wearing Characters, February 26-28, Red Rattler, Marrickvile. Tix from $14 from www.redrattler.org