Barry is an ambitious piece, attempting to draw together not only the story of Dr James Barry, who is widely regarded as the first ‘female’ graduate of Edinburgh University’s Medical Department, but also the concept of how we tell and reclaim proto-queer narratives for ourselves.
The piece opens with a quip about the self-indulgence of fringe shows being made about performers’ own experiences, a clever way of the company covering themselves as they launch into an hour of telling us how their show was made. A group of cis white young women are searching for the subject of their Fringe show and decide on Dr James Barry’s story, an individual who was assigned female at birth and dressed themself as a man in a time when only men were allowed to study at medical school. They choose this story namely because of its relevance to their own experiences of misogyny and toxic masculinity within the student experience, and the glibness with which they venture into exploring it is cleverly and astutely observed. They are not afraid to realise that they may have bitten off slightly more than they can chew when further research shows many believe Barry was actually a trans man, and set about reworking their entire piece. Bringing in a trans actor (Ryan Kay, embodying Barry’s imagined swaggering confidence) to play Barry, they succeed present some wryly accurate and humorous discussions about the problematic power dynamics within the telling of this story, given that they are all (bar Kay) white, cis and female.
The real highlight of this piece’s discussions of presenting queer narratives, however, is their acknowledgement that despite the presentation of Barry as a woman leaving no room for any other interpretation, the presentation of Barry as a transgender man in a time before the concept (though obviously not the existence) of trans people as we know them existed is a flawed interpretation also. This grey area of appropriating a dead individual’s narrative is the heart of the play that I was hoping for, but is all too briefly swept aside in favour of a slightly counter-productive conclusion (presented through a brief detailing of the academic writings on Barry and their gender) that Barry’s story needs to be reclaimed by the trans community, and to say otherwise is to deprive us of one of our ancestors. It feels like a developed argument turning back to a slightly simplistic conclusion, and even as a member of the trans community myself, I didn’t feel wholly comfortable with imposing an identity upon a dead individual without at least leaving some room for debate at the play’s close.
That being said, the performance itself is bursting with energy, and particular commendation must be given to the cast for presenting such knotty issues in a brilliantly engaging way, through ridiculously overblown dance numbers and a courtroom scene which Jess Haygarth, as a doddering judge, steals with comedic ease. Whilst it is refreshing to see the honesty with which they show us the bumps in their creative process, the scenes that presented Barry’s story, in all of its dandied excellence, were the ones in which the prowess of these incredibly strong performers was showcased.
Overall, this ambitious piece is strong and engaging, admitting that such a complex individual’s narrative is never going to be easy to put onstage. The time spent exploring this may occasionally take time away from Barry’s story itself, but this is part of the complicated nature of their multi-layered approach. Whilst it could do with some refining, I can’t help but feel decidedly impressed at Barry’s dedication and scope in getting this story told.