As She Likes It: Christine Beckett

From Drag Kings of Manchester book by Christine Beckett (2)_web

“The exhibition attempts to draw comparison with gender discourse in a historical context.” Curator Stephen Clarke introduces As She Likes It: Christine Beckett, a new photography exhibition foregrounding Drag Kings…

Rosalind is a girl who gets what she wants; in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, she is the central character: the Duke’s daughter, she is desired by Orlando, loved by Celia, and occupies both male and female roles in the story. Banished from court by her uncle who has usurped her father’s rule, she hides in the forest with her cousin Celia. Rosalind takes on the male name, Ganymede, after the beautiful mortal man of Greek Mythology who was abducted by the gods to serve as cup-bearer to Zeus. One of the roles of the cup-bearer was to ensure that the king’s drink was not poisoned, thus signifying the trustworthiness of the man. In the forest, Ganymede the trustworthy meets lovesick Orlando, who has also had to flee from the court, whereupon she/he promises to cure him of the affliction of love.

The most famous line from play is: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” (Act II, Scene VII). Lydia Bernsmeier-Rullow’s stage was at Via, the bar and nightclub situated on Manchester’s Canal Street. In 2014, Bernsmeier-Rullow (a.k.a. Dick Slick) and Drag King troupe The Boi Zone took over the Drag King night there, explicitly as a safe queer space. Although the show initially included live vocals and performances, the evening events eventually transformed into lip-synchs and karaoke. Bernsmeier-Rullow’s Dick Slick and Rosalind’s Ganymede share common traits: both are sharp and at the centre of the play, both play with normative gender roles. Dick Slick invited the photographer Christine Beckett to take photographs of the Drag King events; Beckett accepted, thus creating a document of the scene. These photographs, taken between 2015 and 2018, reveal the nature of this group of players as they act out their roles.

From Drag Kings of Manchester Book by Chrsitine Beckett (6)_web

In September 2023, fifty-one of Beckett’s black and white photographs were published by Strawberry Girl Books in a limited first edition photobook of 130 copies. Beckett shows the Drag Kings dressing, posing, relaxing and performing. The division between ‘being’ and ‘performance’ blurred: when is the woman-as-man on stage and when are they not? Rosalind also blurs the division between woman-as-man when her Ganymede offers to play the part of Rosalind for Orlando, so that the suitor can act out his love: woman-as-man becomes man-as-woman but actually woman-as-man-as-woman. One image loaded with layered signs in Beckett’s photobook is that of two Drag Kings holding up a book titled Beards; the photographer is fully aware of the complex semiotic interplay.

The exhibition As She Likes It at Chester Pride’s Rainbow Tea Rooms includes ten photographs from Beckett’s book. Lined up together on one wall are four portraits. The Drag King Poppa Cherry leans against the wall in a doorway, hands in trouser pockets and noticeable bulge at the crotch. His companions are a long-haired, man-spreading rocker with a Superman t-shirt and leather waistcoat holding a can of Carlsberg beer; another pulls a faux muscle-flexing pose; and a chap with shades wearing a white t-shirt with Bolton Pride logo. On the opposite side of the exhibition space, Poppa Cherry (top) puts on his bow tie in front of the mirror, preparing for the evening; elsewhere, he is seen kissing the hand of a woman; maybe that of the photographer?

As She Likes It at The Rainbow Tea Rooms (3)_web

This exhibition was the outcome of a number of discussions; the first, between myself and Richard Euston, Head of Chester Pride Charity, in which we decided that the next exhibition in the programme at the Rainbow Tea Rooms should connect to and reflect aspects of the LGBTQ+ community. A chance meeting with Declan Connolly at Open Eye Gallery introduced me to the work of Christine Beckett. Further discussion with Beckett led to looking at her work in relation to documentary photography, especially her engagement with a specific group of people at a particular time, and to the issues surrounding gender identity.

The title of the exhibition, As She Likes It, attempts to draw comparison with gender discourse in a historical context. Shakespeare introduces a questioning humour to how we perceive our roles as male and female. Rosalind’s gender and sexuality in his play become ambiguous. The added twist to the tale is that in Shakespeare’s time, female roles on the stage were commonly played by boys; and so Rosalind is a boy (the actor) who plays a girl who plays a boy who plays a girl.

Stephen Clarke is Senior Lecturer in Art and Design: Critical and Contextual Studies, University of Chester

See As She Likes It: Christine Beckett, Curated by Stephen Clarke with wall text by Hannah Harry @ The Rainbow Tea Rooms, Chester, until June 2024

The Rainbow Tea Rooms are situated in the centre of the city at 28 Bridge Street, CH1 1NQ. Opening hours: 9.30am – 5pm weekdays, 9am – 6pm Saturdays, 10am – 5pm Sundays.

All images © Christine Beckett

Posted on 23/04/2024 by thedoublenegative