Apparently, even circuses nowadays feel a need to satisfy the public’s desire to glimpse behind the scenes, to smell the greasepaint and discover how the magic happens. As an audience, we’re immediately addressed as the first lucky group to be invited – for a pre-curtain-up Q&A – into the private dressing room of Dame Nature, the Bearded Lady in Hannibal’s Travelling Palace. Unfortunately, the unseen Diego – who was going to field the questions, as Dame Nature isn’t supposed to utter a word – is a ‘no show’, forcing this somewhat nervous Bearded Lady to speak for herself.
Dame Nature is an intriguing and generally thought-provoking piece of theatre.
We quickly learn that she’s actually called Cheryl, and is married to the circus “owner, manager and head of HR”. We also learn that there’s more to a beard than just a mass of hair. It’s a state of mind; behind this particular beard isn’t just a woman but a bearded lady, one of a very select international sisterhood. This self-belief, however, is soon revealed to be more fragile than it first appears; a self-penned audition piece for RADA, for example, betrays a clear desire to be completely inconspicuous. And the more we learn about her relationship with her husband – “My biggest fan, and my harshest critic,” she says at one point – the more we’re left wondering whether Dame Nature is being “kept safe” from the world, or just being “kept”.
Devised by dramaturg Laurence Cook and the company, including performer Tim Bell, this ‘one-woman’ show riffs off old Victorian music hall, but does so in some deliberately incongruous ways. Cheryl's hoard of magazines, through which she keeps on top of ever-changing fashion, are relatively recent; her chosen musical anthem is Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman”. The disconnect is presumably to emphasise just how out-of-step Cheryl is for a world she only glimpses from the safety of her dressing room. It also underscores the rootlessness of her itinerant existence, as Hannibal’s Travelling Palace constantly tours the country; her only rock-solid reference point, in time as much as space, is the countdown to her impending appearance on stage.
Nevertheless the disparities between the Victorian ethos of the freakshow and the modern day references to motorway stop-offs does sometimes jar, like a rough change of gears, and perhaps it would’ve been simpler to focus more on one time period. On the plus side, the decision to gender-flip the actor playing Cheryl isn’t anywhere so problematic: Bell may initially appear to be exactly what he is, a hairy bearded man wearing a dress, but his full-hearted, unaffected performance and the range of emotions he draws out of the script quickly distracts us from the fact.
Initially amusing, increasingly disturbing, Dame Nature is an intriguing and generally thought-provoking piece of theatre.