In the middle of a major LGBT arts festival in the heart of a cosmopolitan city, it can be hard to remember that stage depictions of same-sex desire remain rare – and that representations of gay women are even fewer in number. Talking with theatre studies students after last week’s run of Stef Smith’s Cured, it quickly became clear that this had been the first time that most had seen a live drama centred on a lesbian relationship – and that almost no-one had seen a performance in which women showed physical affection to each other, and talked openly about desire.
If we’re casting around for the supposedly radical hallmark of queer performance – something which my students seemed to be anticipating – we might do well to remember the significance of seemingly simple acts of representation when those acts are vanishingly rare, and made more likely only in specific circumstances (in this context, Glasgay!’s decision to commission the work). The Bechdel Test – named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and which asks whether two named women in a film have a conversation about something other than a man – seems relevant here, in that it draws attention to dominant practices of representation, character and story.1
Quite apart from the sheer presence of lesbian characters and desire on stage, I think there’s something queer about Cured’s play with form and tone. This is a funny play – not a ‘straight’ comedy but a work which consciously makes use of laughter. At one level, laughter works as a way of making sense of the sometimes absurd conditions of being anything other than straight – the disclosures and signs of non-heterosexual identity that are simultaneously clear, obvious, tenuous and temporary.
But given its subject matter, Cured also seems to touch on the uncertain politics of laughter: both the sensation of not knowing if shared laughter is shared sentiment, and the question of whether mockery is a fit response to those who are not merely foolish but actively dangerous. Is it enough to laugh at someone who would sell the promise of conversion therapy as a ‘gay cure’ when it adds to the stigmatisation of sexual minorities, and when such ‘therapy’ is ineffective, risky and even harmful? Does ridicule give us implicit permission to treat the real world consequences of what may well seem ridiculous less seriously?
Cured’s own explicit references to laughter as a kind of reparative therapy – to the idea of curbing one’s own sexual desires by treating them with derision – may offer an oblique though cautionary answer: that laughter can sometimes function as the cover for the things that we don’t want to address directly. It opens closets only to confirm that the door still works. Laughter in Cured, then, may be queer in the sense that it is sometimes uncomfortably ambivalent. There’s a tipping point towards the end of the play, I think, where the audience is invited to feel sympathy for a woman whose denial is manifest in a sham marriage, and disgust that she would lead someone else into that unhappiness. In that moment, uncertain laugher seemed to map out the audience’s negotiation with itself.
Do we learn what we’re prepared to tolerate by discovering what we’ll laugh at?