I hadn’t paid much attention to Hedwig and the Angry Inch but, thanks to social media, got to see glimpses of the likes of Niel Patrick Harris and Darren Criss as Hedwig on Broadway. Honestly, I didn’t have a particular interest in watching a play about a transvestite who wasn’t Frank N. Furter. But, after watching the South African production I know now I was wrong.
The narrative centres around Hedwig Robinson – a transgender singer from East Berlin. In an attempt to flee what was then the satellite state of the Soviet Union, Hedwig underwent a sex change that went wrong, leaving her with a dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh that looked like, “a sideways grimace on an eyeless face”, thus the name ‘The Angry Inch’. The Angry Inch is also the name of Hedwig’s fictional band, which is on stage during the show.
The play takes the audience on a journey through Hedwig’s melancholic life. At first, we’re introduced to an extravagant performer who is hilariously, and unapologetically, indelicate. By the end of the play, you can’t help but feel sorry for what Hedwig has gone through in her life, which makes her demeanour understandable. We also see how Hedwig’s past has influenced not only how she sees herself, but the implications it’s had on how she treats others, particularly her roadie, Yitzhak.
What I found most interesting about the play is that Hedwig is played by someone quite masculine. This has become typical in more recent years as Darren Criss and Taye Diggs, both well-built, were cast as Hedwig in the Broadway production. This makes the narrative all the more intriguing as it challenges gender norms. It’s bizarre to see what is very obviously a man acting effeminately. However, as John Cameron Mitchell, the author of the book, explained, Hedwig is not a trans woman, but a genderqueer/non-binary character.
“[Hedwig]’s more than a woman or a man,” Mitchell has said. “She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.” – John Cameron Mitchell
What makes the story fascinating is that, initially, Hedwig comes across as someone very powerful and confident. As the play unfolds, we discover more about Hedwig’s grim past, largely centred around Hedwig’s search for love and defining her identity. Despite her atrocious experiences, she finds a way to make light of the past through humour and self-assurance. We later find out that this is just a facade. While we might not be able to know exactly what Hedwig went through, her search for belonging speaks to human truth, which is what makes this narrative so captivating.
Despite the production consisting of one set, there is plenty to look at and makes perfect sense for the story. The stage is used cleverly to make you feel as if you’re actually in Hedwig’s trailer/caravan. Inside and around the trailer is cluttered with paraphernalia that could easily belong to Hedwig. The trailer is decorated with the androgynous 1970’s glam rock style of David Bowie as well as the work of Iggy Pop and John Lennon. With skilful lighting and sound effects to amplify the suspension of disbelief, the setting becomes all the more convincing.
I wasn’t familiar with the music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but I am now a fan. This rock musical uses rock and roll in a masterfully powerful way to convey the various emotions of the narrative. The production is a combination of high-energy songs and performances, as well as slower tracks for more earnest moments. The music, including the profound lyrics, are highly emotive and envelop you in the story, which is one of the reasons why this production is so enthralling.
There are two characters on stage during the play, i.e. Hedwig, played by Paul du Toit (Semi Soet, The Rocky Horror Show, Same Time Next Year, Binnelanders, Backstage), and Genna Galloway (Grease, Showboat, Noah of Cape Town), who plays Hedwig’s husband, Yitzhak. The role of Yitzhak is typically played by a female actress to further the musical’s theme of blurred gender lines.
In her supporting role, Galloway’s performance as a man was convincing. In addition, her voice is incredible. Genna and Paul sang together on most songs, where they harmonised with each other. Their chemistry on stage was simply perfect, and their voices complimented each other flawlessly. But in two songs, in particular, Genna belted out high notes effortlessly demonstrating her control and power. Genna is an extremely talented performer and I look forward to seeing her in more lead roles in the future.
I was used to seeing Paul in quite serious, masculine roles. I was not prepared for his portrayal of Hedwig. I was blown away by his energy, acting ability and vocal talent! Playing this kind of character is no easy task, but du Toit unquestionably owned it. As if that wasn’t enough, the project is particularly close to his heart, as he revealed after the gala performance. Owing to the risqué subject matter, this sort of play wouldn’t have been allowed a few years ago. After the show, Paul spoke about the problem that is censorship, particularly in the arts. He shared his pride in being able to bring this production to life and expressed his support of all artists wanting to depict the truth. This passion behind what he was a part of was clearly evident in his performance.
While not your typical musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a masterpiece in its own right. The story has been praised for being ahead of its time and it all comes together in an intriguing and energetic way that is undeniably captivating. This thought-provoking electric South African production is simply a must-see.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch will be on stage at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino until 1 April 2018. Don’t miss out! Book your tickets here.