Vanessa Van Durme walks falteringly to the mic, shoulders stooped. But then the 73 year old lifts her chin just enough as if to say, I’m still here. And she sings Over the Rainbow in a growl to rival Tom Waits.
A decade ago there was a stage show inspired by a film, Yo Soy Así, about the closing of a drag cabaret in Barcelona, and the ageing performers there. That show was Gardenia, created by directors Frank Van Laecke and Alain Platel of Belgian dance-theatre collective Les Ballets C de la B, with a group of its own ageing gay and trans performers. Now Gardenia returns with eight of the original cast (the ninth, Andrea De Laet, died in 2016).
These performers must have some stories to tell, but this is not that show. Gardenia is a much more impressionistic view of that final night backstage, wigs on the dressing table, a rail of sparkly dresses. At the opening, they wear suits – a different kind of drag. There’s a dissonance between the arrival of Rudy Suwyns, looking like a disgruntled chair of the Rotary Club, and being told “she’s the queen of blowjobs!” We see constant dressing and undressing, identities in flux, floral dresses nestling under men’s jackets (and a fabulous Liza Minnelli look).
The performers and performance are slow-moving. The mood is sparse, fragments of voices in the air like theatre ghosts. It feels frail, in a way – what’s holding it together is unclear – but there is time just to witness these bodies, these humans, if you can get into its zone. Then the light joviality suddenly evaporates to leave pain and fear, a whiff of the characters’ inner struggles.
There are some moments of real theatrical grace: a lip sync to Caetano Veloso’s Cucurrucucú Paloma (as seen in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her); Ravel’s Bolero underlining a slow crescendo of dressing up; the final moving number not so much a big finish as an inevitable slipping away. This, incidentally, is to be 64-year-old director Platel’s final show. It’s a piece about fragility and endurance, and how even the brightest lights must fade.
At Sadler’s Wells, London on 17 November