Playwright Mark Ravenhill has always made uniquely daring contributions to the theatre. His 1996 play Shopping and Fucking took English theatre by storm after its premiere production at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and his career has continued consistently in thrilling new directions. Recent highlights have included a seventeen-play cycle on the Iraq are called Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat and an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation for the National Theatre.
In contrast with Ravenhill’s trailblazing past, A Life in Three Acts, a new theatre piece he’s devised collaboratively with legendary drag performer Bette Bourne based on interviews conducted by Ravenhill that chronicle Bourne’s life, feels oddly by-the-books, even despite its taboo subject matter. Over the course of about two hours, Ravenhill asks the questions, and Bourne gives his scripted answers, guided by a jointly edited manuscript on a music stand.
The evening follows Bourne’s life from birth to the current day, telling of his stern, disapproving father, the early years of the gay liberation movement, acting roles at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, his time living in a drag commune, and, eventually, his founding of the drag performance troupe Bloolips, which made frequent stops in New York City with various satirical drag shows.
Though the piece has been deemed a life in three acts, the structure of the evening is rather loose. There’s no clear delineation between any of the parts. In fact, without reading the published script, there’s little thematic indication as to why the evening would progress the way it does other than to chronicle the subject’s rather typical aging process.
There’s no doubt that Bourne is a compelling personality. When several audience members toward stage left started making a racket, Bette was quick to go off book and shush them before returning to his usual shtick. He’s quick with a tune and rather light on his feet in tap shoes as well. As a pioneer, Bourne has secured a niche spot in gay history. Unfortunately, this particular show has little of the energy and vigor that his life must heretofore have consistently displayed. While his stories are consistently entertaining, Bourne isn’t provoked quite enough by reverent Ravenhill, the docile interviewer. Rather than asking probing questions that provoke unique, candid answers, he settles into a series of comfortable, safe ones or occasionally simply remarks on what Bourne’s just said with little insight.
The problem comes in scripting the evening. Spontaneity is one thing, but recreating spontaneity is another. Ravenhill is certainly not a trained actor, and, while Bourne is, his acting chops aren’t so adept as to cover up the staleness inherent in rereading an interview nearly word for word. Perhaps the solution would be for Ravenhill to write his own play about Bourne starring his subject. Certainly there’d be more life in something built to stand on its own feet and move dramatically forward. As it stands, A Life in Three Acts works as a comfortable gay history lesson – somewhat outside of the box but mostly digestible. With Ravenhill’s prowess, it could potentially have been something spectacular.