Callisto: A Queer Epic

Callisto: A Queer Epic is a thoughtful piece of theatre which explores social conflicts that coincide with the queer lifestyle. Brought to life by a talented ensemble cast, this play by Howard Coase weaves together stories from the 17th, 20th and 23rd centuries to form a rich tapestry of queer narrative.

The minutiae of scenes is what makes Callisto so touching.

The 17th century plot works well to incorporate the contemporary atmosphere around London’s changing theatre scene. Tackling the incredibly recent decision to allow women on stage is controversial enough but throw in a cross-dressing ‘husband’ into the mix and the scandal waiting to unfold is guaranteed to be catastrophic with the threat of discovery hanging over the Hunts like an unseen character on the stage.

Coase builds on real stories and trials of cross-dressing women superbly. Grainne O’Mahony plays the radical actress Arabella Hunt with suitable boldness and has a beautiful chemistry with Georgia Bruce (who plays Arabella’s spouse Amy) which makes their inevitable discovery all the more heart-rending.

By contrast, there is so much to be unfolded from the plotline taking place in 2223. Dominic Applewhite’s Lorn and Nicholas Finerty’s Cal talk in deliberately cryptic sentences and are dressed in simple and definitely post-apocalyptic garb. This look is effectively accomplished by costume supervisor Catherine Pilsworth and for majority of the storyline the aesthetic grabs attention more than the incredibly teased-out storyline. When a twist is revealed, it’s certainly a shock but one which does feel somewhat derivative of modern thrillers.

Finerty proves his multi-rolling worth when he appears as the vicious and smarmy husband of Lola (Mary Higgins), a polarised opposite to Cal in the grimy underworld of Callisto films. Amongst the reels of pornos is ingenue Tammy, played charmingly by Emma D’Arcy. Here we see the actors have a lot of fun with overacting when “filming” new videos. There are plenty of laughs in this sequence which contrasts dramatically with the chilling conclusion to the storyline.

The final in the story is a somewhat sedate two-hander between a young man and the mother of his late partner. Phoebe Hames and James Watterson have a great chemistry on stage and achieve a range of emotions during a visit which transforms into a confrontation.

The mid-way reveal is a nice touch and helps to ground their story among the gallery of history’s unsung LGBT figures. However, the writing is such that we reach a climax in the argument a good scene or two before the story’s conclusion, leaving the two actors stumbling somewhat to keep the relationship, complicated as it is, from becoming so strained that it negates their conversation.

Calling Callisto an epic is a bit of a misnomer. Though the timespan over several centuries along with the overarching theme of exploring attitudes toward the LGBT community fits in with the traditions of the epic fantasy subgenre, I’d argue that the characters in Callisto are far more sympathetic next to archetypal epic heroes who are usually stoic and impenetrable. They have far more than an isolated Achilles’ heel; these are vulnerable people, some of them broken.

The minutiae of scenes is what makes Callisto so touching. A glance, a touch - these relatable actions are what bring them closer to the audience than any hero from Virgil or Tolkein’s work. 

Reviews by Louise Jones

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The Blurb

A constellation of four queer stories scattered across time and space: from a London opera house in 1675 to a research lab on the moon in 2223. Forward Arena: big, progressive theatre that sculpts future worlds.