I’ve never been behind the scenes at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and so it feels peculiar to be heading for the stage door. I’m meeting performer Kate O’Donnell to talk about her role as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and I’m nervous. I follow O’Donnell on social media, and fell a little bit more in awe of her when I read her recent Huffington Post article about being transgender. In short, she’s Beyoncé levels of fabulous.
I’m chatting away to the fella on reception (about the glorious weather and his garden) when O’Donnell appears behind me. She’s a burst of colour with her striking blue hair (“I get to keep it as it matches the stage floor,” she later reveals). Busy with rehearsals, we chat in-between bites of her salad.
I wonder how she landed the part of Feste. “I think someone from [the Exchange] had seen my work, Big Girl’s Blouse, and they did a showing of a musical, Hush, in the foyer and I ended up performing here.”
Hush was a short piece. At just 45 minutes, O’Donnell played a transitioning radio DJ who no longer feels their voice fits with who they are, but it was clearly enough time to impress the theatre bosses. Traditionally, the fool in Twelfth Night is played by a man but director Jo Davies cast Feste as a female part because of the glaringly obvious gender gap in the play.
“I’m very lucky that I get to play Feste. I think the fool has this role to impart some of their wisdom and push the joke. I know why I was cast, I think there’s a lot of that in my work.”
Taking her personal experience to the stage in Big Girl’s Blouse, O’Donnell created an insightful, celebratory and personal piece. Twelfth Night, meanwhile, is a fascinating Shakespeare play as it’s the only one where the fool closes the show, essentially having the last word. O’Donnell will be singing.
“The song charts Feste’s life and the hook is ‘for it rains, it raineth everyday’ which is hilarious for Manchester. Sometimes you feel beaten down by the rain and I think it’s Feste’s chance to go, ‘I’m going to tell you about my life, you have heard about everyone else’s, and I am not going to dress it up anymore, and sing it from my heart’.
“It was written for a man, and I am transgender, so there are lines like ‘when that I was a little boy’ which really resonates with me. It’s powerful, and charts things like ‘when I came to man’s estate’ and I see that as my journey. There is reference to drinking and being wild, and I have kind of had that past, and the challenge is to finish the show and for it not to be bitter. That’s what life is like. And the rain comes every day. It’s a whirligig of life. We all get knocked down sometimes and life can be tough.”
“In fact,” O’Donnell reveals gleefully, “we’ve reintroduced one of the lines at the end, and the director Jo said, ‘don’t worry I’ll deal with the letters of complaint’.”
We both agree that you get a lot of Shakespeare aficionados, shaking their fists in dismay every time someone messes with the Bard. Coming from Stratford-upon-Avon, I’m bored of the whole dressing up in ruffles thing. I’m excited that, during a time of political turmoil and resistance, his words are cropping up, being borrowed and subverted. Recently, I shared a post on social media from theatre company Northern Rep promoting its immersive screening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it received some negative attention. Taking Shakespeare to the soulless world of Instagram and the club scene might seem sacrosanct, but it brings a new audience to texts which might seem fusty.
It has become the norm to abbreviate every word until it’s almost unrecognisable. Language has become lost. We send texts instead of making phone calls. We ‘lol’ instead of laugh. Being articulate isn’t ‘cool’ and sentence structure seems to have been relegated to history along with the horse and cart.
So, can Twelfth Night resonate with a modern audience?
“You have to keep it fresh with Shakespeare,” O’Donnell says. “It’s interesting to look at something written 500 years ago and see how little we communicate now and how little we use words. There’s this sort of ‘playing down’ of language now, but everybody in this play, regardless of status, has something to say.”
“That’s what’s so brilliant about Shakespeare. There are big themes in his work and when they come up, there always seems to be a play for it. I’m not Shakespeare trained. I write my work and perform. I talk about my experience so it’s very much a challenge.”
She adds: “I think maybe a lot of queer audiences feel like Shakespeare isn’t for them. It’s interesting to get them through the doors. There’s a lot of black casting, queer casting, it’s very designer, it’s quite stylish, and that feels very Manchester to me.” O’Donnell laughs: “And, it’s a good night out.”
Trans people are under-represented and under-cast in mainstream entertainment. Does O’Donnell think this is beginning to change?
“Casting is a really interesting issue. Olivia [Kate Kennedy] is played by a non-trans person who is six foot three and wears heels, so I am quite short in comparison. I think this adds another layer to the whole notion of gender. Some of the men are smaller.”
It comes as little surprise to learn that she has launched Trans Creative, which is the first trans theatre company to receive significant sustained financial support from the Arts Council in the form of Elevate funding, designed to support the development of diverse theatre companies and increase their resilience.
But will we ever reach a point where gender will become irrelevant? “I like things being marketed for queer and transgender,” O’Donnell replies. “I make work for people a bit on the outside, but I make it in a way that has a universal appeal.
“I have just made a film with a friend which is doing really well at the BFI festival. It’s called Mum. It’s auto-biographical and we deliberately went against the typical stereotype of trans people – you know, that they’re drug addicts, lonely, sad people – we did it on purpose. The mum thing is universal, everyone has a mum. I made that film with a non-trans person which brought a universality to my less universal story.
“There are loads of ways to make trans work and reach a broader audience and I think that’s happening more and more. I think it’s down to the quality of the work. If the work is good, then everyone will like it.”
O’Donnell has stated that trans stories are rarely, if ever, portrayed as positive. There’s always a depiction of the journey but not everyday life. She’s grateful for the visibility (O’Donnell starred in BBC2’s Boy Meets Girl and she’s a huge fan of Annie Wallace in Hollyoaks) but more needs to be done.
“It’s almost like the narrative is so strong, a lot of people – like TV people – don’t want it because they can’t sell it. It rarely filters into the mainstream but there is a massive interest in sub-culture of trans work. The mainstream is really lagging behind. You are never allowed to be happy. There is a plinky-plonky piano that comes in whenever there is a trans story. It’s always about trauma, and a lot of the reason why people transition is because they want to move into that more positive bit of their life. The journey is hard and scary but, for me, it was the most positive thing I have ever done.”
Once Twelfth Night has finished its run (and after a well-deserved holiday), O’Donnell is making a new show called You’ve Changed which is due to premiere in Edinburgh. Following on from Big Girl’s Blouse, which detailed her childhood, it’s the next chapter. “Simpler, but more challenging,” she explains. “The idea is that I have changed, but so has society.”
I tell O’Donnell that I am excited by the reaction towards political change from people all around the world. It feels like we are sitting up and listening, and telling the people in charge that we’ve had enough. Like we have each other’s back.
“It is exciting, isn’t it?” she enthuses. “And the wonderful thing about this play is that it’s really exciting to see what happens to the narrative if you take away gender or you challenge gender, and how easy it is to subvert a gender.”
As we wrap up, and O’Donnell finishes her lunch, she mentions her admiration for the Royal Exchange and gushes about how much she has enjoyed working on Twelfth Night. I reckon the feeling is mutual.
We walk through the warren of desks and out into the stairwell. “I love your skirt,” she says, of my leopard print maxi. “It’s very bold.”
“Oh, thank you,” I reply. “Your shoes are gorgeous.” A woman after my own heart, she’s rocking silver chelsea boots.
That’s the wonderful thing about O’Donnell, not only is she an absolute powerhouse for social change (with a fabulous eye for footwear) but she’s a passionate, creative and optimistic person. It’s this enthusiasm, positivity and faith that Manchester – and the North of England – can continue to become a hub of creativity and support for the Trans and LGBT+ communities which makes her work so vital.
For me, a combination of positivity, education and a good dose of humour is the best way to get something done. And with O’Donnell at the helm of Trans Creative, the job’s a good ‘un.
Kate O’Donnell will be playing the part of Feste in Twelfth Night at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until May 20, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.