Into the Mirror – Shelly Wall makes us look deeper into what appears to be there. (Theatre Review)
“I hate it. I hate that mirror; it has tormented me since childhood. Each night I would kneel before it and pray. Do you know what its like to be haunted by an image you know is there, you can feel it, but you can’t see it? I would stand in front of the mirror with my eyes closed and imagine… and now I’m not proud of the person staring back at me. I’m not proud of hurting the people I love. I’m not proud that I thought I had to erase Sally, but you see, I thought if I did, I would be free to be Kendall.”
Shelly Wall felt she was always destined to write Into the Mirror. She reveals in the program notes for Into the Mirror that she has been working with the transgender community for many years, and it shows in the complexities, intricacies and attention to emotional detail each of the characters we meet during the course of the play. Wall understands these human creatures and has the talent and wit to be able to open them up, open us up, and create a blend that will leave the audience and the actors forever changed in their attitudes and beliefs around the complicated issues of gender reassignment.
Gender reassignment isn’t just about who a person really is inside and how those closest to them react to their choices. Men and women are treated differently by society. To become who you really are is therefore political, an action that calls down societal opinion we wake to find is firmly planted in our DNA no matter what our beliefs and ideas. Sometimes you can accept gender reassignement if the transition is from man to woman. But how can a young feminist female accept a woman who wants to become a man? Who are you if you are a lesbian who falls in love with a post-reassignment male? HOw can you accept losing your mother and coming to terms with having two fathers?
Shelly Wall confronts these and many other issues related to gender reassignment within the structure of the play. She is well supported by a team of people highly dedicated to making the play a success. The play is surrounded by passion and drive, from the bravery of the actors, through the subtle and delicate lighting to the sound track made specifically for the play. The opening song “Into the Mirror” is particularly beautiful, setting the scene with a simple folk guitar and lilting female voice singing of the yearning and longing of all human creatures to fly into the true self we see reflected in the sky above. All the roles are challenging, but those of Kendall (Penny Day) and Sophia (Carole Sharkey-Waters) are particularly difficult as they embody the prejudices and the judgements we all carry within us. These two actors confront what we think we know about who they are and how they should be by playing the roles true to what they know, which is something the audience will learn as the play moves forward. This is a brave and talented cast, supported by a clever and well written script.
But this is a play isn’t really about its cast. It’s about me, and the person I bring into the room as the theatre begins, my transformation and the person I will be when I leave at the end. Shelly Wall is asking something of us, and the question isn’t political and it isn’t the one you’re expecting.
The costs of the lie he was born into has been deep and lasting on Kendall. This price has not just stretched to his peace of mind and sense of self, though that is difficult enough. It has cost him his marriage and his relationship with his daughter. He’s felt like a fake, as though he were living a lie and lieing to those around him that he loves. Now that he has taken the difficult steps and consequences of complete honesty and truth, he finds the image of himself as a fake is externalised. Everyone he knows and loves sees him as the person who gave up on what he was before. Not proper then, not real now. It seems Kendall must lie to someone all the time, in order for him to get as close to the truth as possible.
During the course of the play he will fall in love. He will fall in love with the first person who sees him as one thing and one thing only. But this woman can love a woman easily. Its the men in her life that have been brutal and scarred her freedom to choose. All these complications are embodied within a rich script that plays in a meta type way with the perceptions of the audience and what they think they see. Dialogue is clever, the way Kendall masks his past gender, the way entire history’s are written into a picnic, prepping the audience for a moment toward the end of the play we don’t see coming. Wall has not sacrificed the beauty and power of theatre for the sake of the political. We are not expected to succumb to a night of being preached at. First and foremost, Wall treats us to that which we go to the theatre for – to be mesmerised by humanity. To be inspired by the question of what it is to be human.
Theatre can create an intimacy that supersedes almost all other forms of art. And at the same time, it is famous for its effort to overcome the distance between audience and actor; that great divide that ultimately represents the distance we maintain from ourselves. Wall cleverly uses the political to unite audience and actor, rather than divide. The audience think they know what they are getting and Wall shifts the sand under their feet just as they are sympathetic with all those on the stage. The effect is that of immediacy and of the blurring of identity. We become so close to these human beings, we ask the questions about where I stop and the other begins. What makes me who I am? What makes me think they are who they are? They are actors; its theatre; none of its real. Is it? This is the experience for the audience as Wall cleverly uses the script and the very assumptions that she knows are built into the DNA of every member of this society to turn the tables and eventually, make each of us ask the most important question of all.
If that is what I think, then who am I?