cn: depression, misogyny, heteronormativity, dysphoria, biological essentialism, mention of genitals
Taken from Metamorphoses, the way Iphis straddles the divide between Ovid’s Rome and our contemporary world is both what makes the play so resonant and yet over-sentimental. Through cries of desperation: “I will not be cured”, “I’m still a woman”, Iphis tells the tragic tale of gender identity crises, and more specifically what it means to be a woman. Brought up as a boy to save her from death at the hands of her misogynistic father, Iphis faces the consequences of a clash between her actual gender identity and this decision on the eve of her wedding to Ianthe, who like the rest of Rome believes Iphis to be a man. Praying to Isis in hope of some kind of solution, Iphis is bestowed with ‘the gift’ of ‘a man’s body’ (removing her breasts, changing her genitals), both ‘completing’ her in the eyes of her father who believes his son effeminate, and giving her the ‘freedom’ only a man would be entitled to. It seems odd then, particularly to her mother, that Iphis sees this as no gift, but a false imposition and curse, only proving the Gods to be ‘slaves to men’, only able to change physicality as opposed to the mind of society itself.
At this point, the way Iphis’ transition from male to female is portrayed must be noted. Albeit a little overdone, both the physical intertwining and struggle between the female and male versions of Iphis (played by Xanthe Lily Burdett and Ben Martineau respectively) to illustrate the change is undoubtedly sophisticated, representing well the struggles non-cis/het individuals may experience when questioning and coming to terms with their identity. Perhaps more powerful though to the contemporary eye are the questions the play raises as to what gender truly is. Trapped in a world where gender is dictated by biological essentialism and body parts like penises and vaginas, Iphis declares her spirit to be woman despite her physical change to a typically ‘male’ appearance. This attests to the idea that gender transcends the body, yet Iphis retains uncomfortable feelings of dysphoria throughout, leading her into what appears to be a deep depression/psychosis. I couldn’t help but note this tension as one which plays out in our contemporary world, where gender in its binary and limited sense is such an oppressive force for the LGBT+ community, as well as a meaningful and valuable source of identity.
It is obvious from start to finish that Iphis regrets and resents this physical change, yet it is one which is necessary to allow her to pursue love- marrying the woman she loves- in a heteronormative society. Preaching that we are all ‘victims’ yet simultaneously guilty of reinforcing these harmful norms, Iphis and the destruction she brings to her family and wife shows only the tragic consequences of living in a world which condemns LGBT+ people. Whilst staging remains impressive throughout, particularly in the use of bodies and props to give an abstract side to the tragedy, there are points at which the acting seemed oversentimental – and by this, I only mean that the fable type message of the play which speaks of hope for a more progressive and open-minded society would perhaps benefit from a more subtle portrayal. My only other criticism then would be the comparative lightness which comes at the end of the play, in which Iphis and Ianthe meet in the underworld, both in female form, which again takes from the powerful message of the play. Whilst the victory of lesbianism at this point seems naturally uplifting, the tragic blows inflicted by an intolerant world are somewhat cushioned by the existence of an afterlife, when perhaps a bleak ending would have had a more lasting impression.
Overall though impressive performances from the likes of Xanthe Burdett and Ben Martineau – assets of the production in their convincing and emotional portrayals of Iphis and Ianthe – are only one of the reasons the play is worth watching; impressive and innovative staging, alongside a generally intense and engaging play, make up the others. I believe this adaptation may resonate with any member of the LGBT+ community, through both the experience and rejection of a love and a gendered life which reaches beyond the cisheteronormative, and I would thoroughly recommend it as a result.