Pop quiz! What do the words “qualified”, “critical” “enduring” and “original” have in common? The answer is that they are all contranymns – word which have more than one generally accepted meaning in the English language that to a greater or lesser extent contradict each other. Thus “qualified” can mean both skilled (a qualified expert) and limited (a qualified success); it all depends on the context. Such evasiveness of language is used to inform the writing of Adam by Frances Poet originally commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and now showing as part of the BBC Lights Up Festival. This is definitely an “original” in the better sense of the word and explores the key question: “Can the soul of a man be trapped in the body of a woman?”
The play is based on the life story of Adam Kashmiry assigned as female at birth who comes to realise: “I feel I would be a better boy than a girl.” But he lives in Alexandria and the Egyptian family, social and political structures do not allow for such transitioning. He exiles himself to Scotland where he continues his struggle for recognition both with himself and with the authorities as he claims asylum on the grounds that his personal safety would be endangered if he remained where he was. A classic Catch 22 situation arises as he is unable to prove his need for asylum until he transitions yet he cannot transition until he has been granted that asylum. He is caught between two worlds rather like the mermaid that is the symbol of his home city or the contranyms which so fascinate the central character.
Kashmiry takes the lead role as the fictionalised (though probably not heavily so) version of himself which lends this already affecting story a deal more poignancy than it would otherwise do. He tells his story to a mental health nurse (Stephen McCole) and from here we are transported back to his younger days in Egypt where the focus is on his upbringing by his conservative mother (Myriam Acharki) who insists on referring to her child as “Princess” and finds it difficult to accept him for who he is.
There is also a chilling incident where a work colleague carries out rape as some kind of corrective measure. Small wonder that Kashmiri flees the sunnily lit Alexandria to the comparative gloom of Glasgow. Here he seeks to convince the authorities of his needs and intentions. This is embodied in the person of a Home Office official who deliberately and spitefully uses the term “Miss” throughout the asylum seeking interview. Kashmiry eventually holes up in his flat, another state of halfway house purgatorial existence, to consider his options. His former persona (known as Egyptian Adam and so far only briefly glimpsed) materialises for a full on discussion about the difficult situation. These scenes between Kashmiry and Yasmin Al-Khudhairi are at the heart of the play and get to the centre of the debate in a stylised theatrical manner which leaves a lasting impression.
Cora Bissett and Louise Lockwood direct, sometimes adopting the aforementioned theatrical style, but they also intercut this with the language of film and television. This means the overall look of the piece mirrors the content and themes of the play and becomes something else caught between two worlds. While this could lead to charges of directorial indecision I thought it enhanced the experience. The play is an eloquent examination of the struggles and decisions which trans people face and although it is mostly a salutary experience it does end on a highly optimistic note which lifts the spirits. An online choir of over one hundred people sing “We are real, we understand, all of us are just people, extraordinary people”. Quite!