Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh
1966: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Twin babies Bruce and Brian Reimer are both diagnosed with phimosis. Circumcision is recommended. Their doctor chooses a new and unconventional method: electrocauterization. Bruce is up first.
And the procedure goes horribly, shockingly wrong. Bruce’s penis is damaged beyond repair.
Brian is spared. His phimosis is left to resolve itself naturally. Which it does.
The twins’ parents, Janet and Ron, are distraught. So when Harvard-educated psychologist John Money recommends gender reassignment, they are soon persuaded. ‘Brenda’ won’t remember being Bruce, Dr Money says; it’s a simple matter of surgery and hormones…
Writer/director Carly Wijs draws on this tragic true story to create a thoughtful drama, exploring the very topical subject of gender identity, illuminating the age-old nature/nurture debate. It’s sensitively done – socratic rather than didactic – and it’s impossible not to feel emotionally involved.
Actors Vanja Maria Godée and Jeroen van der Ven play Janet and Ron respectively, and also act as narrators, using a range of cuddly toys as stand-ins for the other characters. This technique is oddly affecting, highlighting the family’s innocence, while also suggesting that the very act of telling their story is ‘play therapy’ for the troubled pair. The set, by Stef Stessel, is wonderfully effective in its simplicity: a wheeled ‘wall’ draped with a light blue cloth, suggestive of a waterfall, spans almost the whole width of the stage, and there’s a stunning moment of revelation towards the end of the piece. Both Godée and van der Ven are immensely likeable performers; their gentleness and vulnerability ensure we’re on their side. Janet and Ron are victims of a man so caught up in his own theories that he’s stopped seeing the humanity of those he’s experimenting on.
Because Brenda is a very unhappy child. She doesn’t like the constrictions that come with being a girl; she doesn’t want to wear dresses or learn to sew; she wants to climb trees and fight and run with the boys. Is this because she is a boy, or would a cis-Brenda feel the same frustrations? We’ll never know. What we do know, unequivocally, is that it can’t be right for someone else to have made such a momentous decision for baby Bruce: to have compounded his initial mutilation with surgical castration, testosterone blockers and oestrogen – and to have concealed this fact from him. It’s his body; his choice. And the repercussions are devastating…
Despite its harrowing subject matter, Boy is a tender, poignant tale, told with real heart. This is experimental theatre-making at its best.