Wearing scrubs and stethoscopes, Alex Margo Arden and Caspar Heinemann are inside a whale. We know this because a hand-painted backdrop shows the wide-open mouth of not a whale exactly, but something that would eat you alive, no question. A soundtrack of low-frequency gurgling plays. Splashing. In their pre-recorded dialogue, Arden and Heinemann refer to the soft, acidic environment they find – better: lost – themselves in. ‘We became eaten,’ Arden declares, as if referring to a newly acquired ontological status. A strobe effect – the performers flicking lights on and off – warns of the presence of other, possibly supernatural beings inside the whale. In a fittingly over-the-top turn of events, Arden and Heinemann, already fish food, get eaten again. That’s just their luck! This time by dinosaurs – or are they dragons? The scene peaks in one of the play’s most memorable images: heroine and hero, doubly toast, glimpse out from behind rubbery dragon masks. In a brief cameo as a bedsheet ghost, writer Hannah Regel runs circles around the ingested.
The Farmyard Is Not a Violent Place and I Look Exactly Like Judy Garland (2020) is a DIY play about friendship, going off-grid, resistance, trans survival and not knowing what to do, but doing it anyway. It was written and directed by Arden and Heinemann – both London-based – who also designed the lighting, sound, costumes and set. Apart from Regel’s supporting role, they are the sole performers.
In Linda Stupart and Carl Gent’s artists’ play All of Us Girls Have Been Dead For So Long (2019), which originally ran at London’s ICA, the lead character Eco the Dolphin embarks on a series of wanderings, encountering various allies, adversaries and adventures along the way. In keeping with the art-queers-doing-narrative-as-odyssey zeitgeist, Arden and Heinemann leave their residential farmyard in search of a better life, or at least a first aid kit to band-aid their chronic wounds. Painted canvases are being hoisted and hauled down via a pulley system to indicate rapidly changing locations. In a quick succession of costume changes, the performers serve farm-girl and farm-boy chic, wearing a flowery dress and corduroy shorts, respectively. They escape disguised as fly agaric mushrooms. They undress behind a translucent screen, emerging in a 1940s grange-glamour body suit (Arden) and boxer briefs (Heinemann), in beige. In ancient Rome, they wear togas. On beach chairs, trans-friendly bathing suits from the 1920s. They slip into striped pyjamas, or – a highlight – a horse costume for two. Deliberating who’s the head and who’s the tail, Arden and Heinemann provide a welcome twist on the age-old question, who’s top and who’s bottom.
Props include a Christmas tree being dragged on a leash, a suspended sculpture made from clothes hangers and fluorescent stars, plastic herring in a bucket, and dozens of mobile phones scattered across the floor. There is an E.T.-derived plotline (1982) about phoning somewhere, though Arden and Heinemann have gone past the idea of somewhere being home. As well as the performers’ speaking parts, of which there are many, the play’s soundtrack includes source materials as diverse as the ‘Maypole Song’ from The Wicker Man (1973), the Surprise Surprise (1984–2001) theme tune, the Thames Television ident and various show tunes, field recordings and sound effects – creating an overall 1960s psych-folk revival feel.
In the play’s finale, the artists perform a paganized version of ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ (c.1780) with the gusto to rival a panto production. Maybe it’s seasonal, maybe it’s a deliberate affiliation with a longer tradition of camp, gender-crossing British performance art and entertainment. The sheer number of items and abstractions replacing the original partridge, pear tree and turtle doves is mindboggling – as mindboggling as the ambition and scope of the play itself, and the fact that they did it all by themselves. This is precisely the point.
The Farmyard Is Not a Violent Place is a showcase for the generative power of queer friendship. In Jay Bernard’s poetry chapbook The Red and Yellow Nothing (2016), the protagonist, too, is eaten by a pre-medieval beast, most likely a dinosaur. Being digested, for Bernard, is a metaphor, not just for gender transition, but transformation in the wider sense; a corrosion of conventional boundaries and binary limitations. The Farmyard Is Not a Violent Place toys with, but resists tidy forms of meaning-making. ‘Is it a metaphor?’ Arden asks at one point. ‘Yes,’ Heinemann replies, ‘and no.’ The play makes no real attempts at answering the gigantic philosophical questions around historiality, power and subjectivity it raises, but rather employs them as performative springboards for hugely enjoyable, skilfully executed backflips (figuratively speaking – there are no acrobats on set). Who knows what might become possible, the artists seem to ask, through concerted effort, imaginative powers, determination, trans allyship, an independent gallery behind you and maybe a little funding? Spectacular scenes.
Main image: Alex Margo Arden and Caspar Heinemann, The Farmyard is Not A Violent Place and I Look Exactly Like Judy Garland, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: Cell Project Space, London; photograph: Rob Harris
Isabel Waidner is a writer and critical theorist. Their novel We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff (2019) was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and is currently longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize.