This show tries to dig deep but comes up feeling shallow.
There’s digging up dirt. A lot of dirt. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to it than that.
At a time of increasing transphobia and misinformation about trans identity, transgender representation is more important than ever. But for an excellent show which eloquently discusses the transgender experience, please do catch Burgerz featuring Travis Alabanza which is currently on tour, instead of seeing ‘We Dig’. Coincidentally, Travis will appear in selected performances of ‘We Dig’ during its run.
The Ovalhouse theatre has used its upcoming relocation to Brixton as a creative opportunity to commission artists to help demolish the current building. In ‘We Dig’, one of the first shows in its Demolition season, a rotating cast of five international transgender artists dig up the actual dirt underneath what used to be the stage (see photo below). At different points, there are varied attempts to introduce some salient meaning to this show, but there’s a serious lack of cohesion and lack of coherence to it all.
When you enter the main space, it’s a building site: the stage has been dug up; there’s some scaffolding; a funky disco ball and a leaking tap. Emma Frankland is wearing some trendy construction worker clothes and sets up the scene for the show. She doesn’t want to dig alone and so she’s invited her four other transgender friends. They dramatically break down a section of the wall, congregate around the hole for some fun dancing before the communal digging begins.
During the first few minutes, the performers dig and grunt. There’s also some passing commentary about feeling sweaty and how digging makes them feel good about being in their own body. They dig up coke cans and a box with food including an avocado. Digging continues for a while longer until the artists find themselves occupied doing different things around the stage.
It feels like there is a promising show desperate to be unearthed here around exploring trans identity with reference to digging. But the dialogue feels insular and not one that the audience is invited to engage in. This isn’t helped by the noise of the drilling, throwing rocks about the stage, and the fact that the performers do not use mics. At one point, Emma gravitates towards the back of the space and delivers a monologue about rocks, but it’s hard to hear above all the noise.
There’s a pervading sense that the artists reach for metaphors which don’t quite land. In turn, they each pick up the baton and there’s the expectation that they’d run with a certain idea. But just as they’ve taken off, the idea falls flat and the baton is picked up by someone else to have a go.
Is LGBTQ+ a western idea imported into Asia?
Are there similarities between garlic being planted in the autumn and leaving transgender people alone?
Are our dreams burned by our friends and family?
The most dynamic element is left to the finale when a gracious guest performer thankfully pulls focus and begins a beautiful dance sequence. But this feels far too late to rescue the show.
It pains me to write this review as this project in theory is brimming with promise. But for the production that I witnessed, if you’d like to replicate the impact that it had, you’re better off going to an actual construction site and seeing the workers dig there instead for free.
We Dig is running at the Ovalhouse between 5 – 19 October 2019 at the time of writing.
Photo Credit: Rosie Powell