Mark Ravenhill likes to use the creative ferment of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to bend the playwriting rules. In 2007, his “Ravenhill for Breakfast” was a daily series of plays performed, script in hand, almost as quickly as he wrote them. This year, he conducted interviews with actor Bette Bourne, founder of Brit drag troupe Bloolips, turning the transcripts into three-hour-long performances that re-create those conversations virtually word for word. In practice, it’s hardly more experimental than a celebrity chatshow, but the performance is made compelling by the charismatic Bourne and his fascinating story of gay activism and a life in the theater.
The interview show opened in a shorter version March 7, 2010, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY, in a limited transfer engagement running through March 28.
It would have been possible for Ravenhill (“Shopping and Fucking”) to present the show simply as an open-ended “audience with”-style Q&A. At 69, Bourne has the air of a genteel maiden aunt — albeit one with a wicked sense of humor. He is a natural performer who basks in the attention of an audience and would have no problem talking entertainingly without a script. In committing the conversation to paper, however, the playwright brings an element of control to the performance — notwithstanding Bourne’s tendency to extemporize — and enables the actor to share in public certain intimate details he might previously have admitted to only in private.
The approach also opens up the possibility of the same material being performed by other people, not least because the script has been published just like any other Ravenhill play. That would shift the emphasis from Bourne as an individual to a more general story of 20th-century culture, reflecting on the changes from postwar austerity in working-class London to the egalitarian spirit of the late 1960s and the theatrical experimentation of the ’70s and beyond.
Crucially, this is also a gay history, and Bourne offers candid insight into the club culture of his youth, the radicalization of the gay liberation movement, the provocation of cross-dressing and the devastation of AIDS. Unexpectedly, he describes his early homosexual experiences as a teenager as “a lark,” claiming the repression suffered by many men in that era as a middle-class phenomenon. It is only later in his story, when he discovers drag, that he finds himself dealing with prejudice and anti-gay violence, something that still persists today.
This is not the only time in the show when you find yourself wanting to cross-question Bourne more vigorously. Ravenhill is not always the most penetrating of interviewers and it would take a tougher line of questioning to override Bourne’s instinct to entertain. This means that while the three acts cover a lot of historical ground — and do so with much charm — they seem to skim over the surface.
In one sense, it’s a credit to “A Life in Three Acts” and to Bourne himself that the more we find out, the more we want to know. But it’s equally strange to spend three happy hours in someone’s company and find the experience superficial.