Theatre review: Adam @ Traverse Theatre

Adam Kashmiry, 19, sits alone in his bedsit, opens his browser and asks the question “can the soul of a man be trapped in a woman?” … it’s a question both Adam, and the audience, already know the answer to for this scene is towards the end of Cora Bissett’s latest play, for the National Theatre of Scotland; Its transgender hero is tracing his intimate and traumatic journey from societal and family alienation in Egypt to rebirth in Glasgow.

Here is a story of transformation, not just in Adam himself, but from the short monologue first aired as part of the Citizens Theatre and Scottish Refugee Council’s production Here We Stay to a dual-lead Edinburgh Fringe debut in the Traverse festival programme. It is absorbing viewing, watching Adam, with his ability to connect assisted by Francis Poet’s clever script for which the hero noted, in early script development, “something like that actually happened to me”, and it is understandable why it did. A couple of years in the making, the trust between writer, director and Kashmiry are what makes his story so sensitive and genuine as he was not originally cast to star in the play, this came later, and why would he… he is not an actor.

Adam leaves Egypt for Britain following a brutal and graphic ‘corrective’ molestation, homelessness, family rejection and in fear of further repercussions caused by an early sexual encounter within his employment at an Alexandrian clothes store. Adam is played on-stage by both Kashmiry and Nesha Caplan, deliberately female cast here, with their performances perfectly mirroring the impulses within his body throughout girlhood. Identically dressed, resplendent in black, they bicker and flatter across stage and borders only parting once he is hospitalised, in Glasgow, thanks to forced starvation and the unhygienic and darkweb sourced do-it-yourself testosterone boosters.

Here we slam straight into politics and during some of the darkest moments of Adam’s story, watching a refugee navigate several rounds of rejections from the British asylum system with the concurrent commentary of the, short-lived, euphoria from the Arab Spring live-streamed to his laptop. It is here, however, that the script begins to flatten with Poet seemingly opting for clichéd symbolism of the big-bad British state; the judge has a plummy southern accent and without a shred of humility in its positioning towards Adam. It reminds me of the worst parts of I, Daniel Blake where Loach believes that all working-class people are warm and charitable and civil servants are robotic pen-pushers.

Eighteen months of isolation later, thanks to the testosterone induced emergency room visit, a letter arrives. He is granted asylum, as Adam, in real life. Adam notes that “in Arabic, our words are either masculine or feminine. It’s a language that likes things to be one way or another, but there’s a word you have in English meaning the same word can have two opposite meanings”. Its a contranym, Adam discovers, on meeting an admirer at the aftershow of the original Citizens Theatre monologue. She’s now his wife, it’s an extraordinary story.

It is online also, specifically the online trans community, where Adam first met a diversity of experiences which helped him on his journey and their 120 voices and faces are displayed and amplified here through the Adam World Choir: a global digital community of transgender and non-binary people. He is also telling their story and they, in the choir, were filmed separately before integrated on-screen thanks to some very impressive multimedia projections, sound design and accompanying music by Jocelyn Pook of Brick Lane notoriety.

Adam is a very clever, powerful and ambitious piece of theatre, the Traverse is only a 250 capacity, but it feels huge inside today. Over the past weeks, since this performance, there has been several national broadcasters profile the play and it would be most surprising, and disappointing, should this story not receive wider exposure than it already has.

By Andrew Walker