If These Wigs Could Talk ★★★★☆
Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre
“What am I for?” is the searching refrain that runs through If These Wigs Could Talk, a theatrical monologue from Panti Bliss in which the drag queen questions her role as an activist in the wake of the marriage-equality referendum, in 2015; her campaigning was an instrumental part of its success. In Haunted, Tara Flynn asks the same question, although not as explicitly. Flynn was involved in the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, in 2018, and so allow abortion. In her theatricalised testimony she expounds on the personal toll of political activism.
Despite complementing each other in theme and form, however, and despite sharing an Abbey–Thisispopbaby production team that includes the director Phillip McMahon, the set designer Molly O’Cathain and the lighting designer Sinéad McKenna, the theatrical thrust and impact of each performance is unique.
At the opening of Haunted, Flynn finds herself literally on the floor. It is the day of the Yes result, and she is in her therapist’s office. What he mistakes for elation is the beginning of Flynn’s nervous collapse. The campaign is over, but her story goes on, as does the personal abuse she receives for having spoken openly about her abortion, which was “a ‘bad’ abortion: one I chose”. Without the adrenaline rush of fighting for women’s rights to distract her, Flynn also finds herself suddenly grieving her father’s death.
The life of the Co Clare healer Biddy Early offers Flynn a structure for self-reflection in this 60-minute piece. She finds similarities to her own story in Early’s persecution, and a common thread of interest with her father, who revered Early as a local hero. In these sections of the story Flynn takes on the shape of an old seanachaí, squatting in the green-gold glow of McKenna’s campfire-washed lights.
McMahon’s inspired direction keeps Flynn moving as she speaks: she upends the therapist’s chair; she upends herself, at one stage speaking as she stands on her head. There are some dramatic flourishes, facilitated by McKenna’s lighting design, and a kooky cameo from a metaphor given physical form by O’Cathain’s clever costuming.
The writing feels weighed down by its own self-interest, however, with contextual cultural explanations that make both Flynn’s story and the Repeal the Eighth campaign seem more particular than universal. What can we learn from Flynn’s experiences beyond what she has learned about herself?
If These Wigs Could Talk presents a more tightly woven narrative of the way politics can affect personal experience. That’s not to say Panti Bliss is going to stick to her probing and lyrical script. There is a volatile, improvisational element to her performance that chimes with the “recklessness” that Panti identifies as her signature character trait. Having come of age and come out in a culture where homosexuality was still illegal, Panti’s finding her voice as a drag queen was the ultimate act of rebellion.
If These Wigs Could Talk offers insights into the cultural changes that have enabled her transformation from queer-cabaret icon to mainstream “national f**king treasure”. Panti remains self-reflective throughout, however. “What am I for?” now drag is mainstream, she asks. But she also provides the answers with a chilling, impassioned reminder that Ireland’s liberalism is tenuous and exceptional.
Panti, aka Rory O’Neill, has some important things to say to his parents, in particular his father, whose unconditional pragmatic love for his son has enabled Panti to sing her passions loud
It turns out Panti still has plenty of important things to say: to young lesbians in Sarajevo, to those celebrating the World Cup in Qatar, to the right-wing hatemongers protesting outside a bookshop in Westport during Mayo Pride. Panti, aka Rory O’Neill, also has some important things to say to his parents, in particular his father, whose unconditional, pragmatic love for his son has enabled Panti to sing her passions loud.
Strutting across the stage in stilettos and a voluptuous glittery ensemble from James David Seaver, Panti gives a performance that is an inherently theatrical act, even if it is no longer the political act it once was. What is most satisfying, most moving, about If These Wigs Could Talk is how deeply felt her politics remain.
Haunted and If These Wigs Could Talk run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, December 3rd