Well, hell... nobody's perfect

'Who are you calling a female impersonator? I'm a gay man in a frock!' Paul Taylor meets Bette Bourne, drag queen, as he prepares to reprise his signature role, the castrato-diva star of Gloria's 'Sarrasine'

To know that a role has been created specifically with you in mind must be very flattering. Your smile of gratitude might falter a little, however, at the news that the character in question is a 260-year- old transvestite castrato. But Bette Bourne - renowned drag queen and Obie-winning founder of Bloolips - finds this legendary eunuch-diva, Zambinella, such a rewarding role and one with so many personal overtones that he is about to play it for a second time in the rewritten, re-scored and redesigned version of Sarrasine, which will open at the Lyric Hammersmith next Wednesday.

We met during a rehearsal lunch-break. Bourne insists that he is not a female impersonator but "a gay man in a frock", or rather, on the day I encountered him, a gay man in slap, trousers, dangly earrings and a belted floral blouse, with that mane of black and white streaked hair - chivalrously likened in one review to a dead skunk.

The classically trained voice is gentle and ruminative during our conversation, though you can hear hints in it of the tough Hackney background and appreciate why, in the Sixties, this future doyenne of drag found himself playing East End villains in TV shows like The Avengers, Dixon of Dock Green and The Prisoner.

He began by pounding on the word "lubricious", which I'd just unwarily thrown into a sentence. "Has it anything to do with lubricant? Oh, I see, 'could slide one way or t'other'. Good word..." To my asking if he'd been struck by the similarities between the situation in Sarrasine (adapted from the Balzac short story by Neil Bartlett) and the David Henry Hwang stage hit, M. Butterfly, he replied that he hadn't seen the latter and indeed that it is quite rare for him to have a good time in the theatre. He had, however, recently visited and admired John Gabriel Borkman at the National and he thought there were connections with that. "To destroy the capacity for love in another human being" is the sin singled out as the most culpable of all in Ibsen's play and this, Bourne argues, is the ultimate effect of Zambinella on the title character in Bartlett's show.

As with M. Butterfly, Sarrasine is the story of a man's fatal infatuation with a performer who turns out not to be the woman he imagined, or a woman at all. In this case, "she" is a star castrato opera singer in Rome and the kept boy of a cardinal. "Another man in a frock," I interject. "Yes, but with a lot more lace," retorts Bourne. Casanova, in his Memoirs, dryly noted the irony whereby the Holy City, with its predilection for creating castrati, "forces every man to become a pederast", in that it repeatedly demonstrates how sexual desire can be aroused by a theatrical illusion. Some men, of course, are undaunted when the biological facts come out. Their patron saint is Osgood in Some Like It Hot, who shrugs that "nobody's perfect" when Jack Lemmon's true sex is revealed, the implication being that if Lemmon can't be the girl of his dreams, well, hell, he could still be the transvestite of them. Sarrasine, on the other hand, is destroyed (in Bourne's words) "by a deception used to murderous effect".

The castrato star is played in the show by three performers: the youthful Zambinella is Francois Testory, showing off his androgynous beauty in a posing pouch and flexing a voice that ranges from falsetto to baritone, while Beverley Klein incarnates the Piaf-like middle period. The time scale has been extended from the mere hundred years of the Balzac story to two and a half centuries, giving Nicolas Bloomfield's score more room for parodic musical manoeuvres and allowing Bourne's ancient Zambinella to appear in all his crumbled majesty, a creature who appears to have survived for decades on a diet of champagne and cigarettes, his fingers flashing with the rings pressed on him in his glory days by princes and cardinals.

"It's like a hall of mirrors," says Bourne. "It's the most difficult show I ever did." But then he instantly qualifies this by recalling the Obie-award winning Belle Reprieve, "a meditation on Streetcar in which Peggy Shaw played a butch lesbian who was in turn playing Marlon Brando who was in turn playing Stanley in the same way that I was playing Blanche as a drag queen who thought she was Blanche".

Certainly, where themes are concerned, Sarrasine will have its work cut out preventing traffic congestion. Bourne reeled off a list which includes "the pain of the star" (is a castrato a special category or a plausible metaphor for what happens, to some degree, to all star performers?), and "the destructive power of the artist". The aged Zambinella is held to account for his life, in Bartlett's version, by Mme de Rochefide (Sara Kestelman), who heard him sing at his last recital in the Fifties and obsessively adores the freakish perfection of his voice. "She forces him to look back at what he did," reveals Bourne. "She needs him to be perfectly still, otherwise her life is meaningless." The frightening expectations of the fan: Bourne had witnessed these in the Sixties when socialising with his brother, Mike Berry, then a big pop star; as you'll have anticipated, Sarrasine ends in tragedy.

"Female impersonation is a rather curious career choice for a woman, Ms Coo" is the immortal first line of Phyllis Nagy's Royal Court play The Strip. On the other hand, we can all think of stage and screen performances by women that have seemed as much like drag acts as drag acts - a man's camp idea of what a woman is. Bourne seemed pleased when I said that his performance as Lady Bracknell in Nicholas Wright's 1995 English Touring Theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest struck me as a good deal less camp than Maggie Smith's in the West End.

He first got into frocks when he became involved with Gay Lib in the late Sixties. His aim was (and is) to find a different way of being a man rather than to mimic a male stereotypical conception of womanhood. In Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, there's a Wilde pastiche that includes the lines: "All women dress like their mothers, that is their tragedy. No man ever does. That is his" - a joke (delivered by a man in drag) in which there may be a certain truth. The questioning of gender roles in the Seventies led to an alignment of radical drag with women's lib and to protests in swimsuits outside Bow Street Court when Libbers were in the dock there for disrupting the Miss World Contest. But it's significant that it was not until his excellent Lady Bracknell, some quarter of a century later, that Bourne made his debut as a female impersonator and he only took on the role after carefully establishing that a caricature was not required. The wait was worth it for the freshness of his reading. Bourne intoned the famous "A handbag?" line in a new minted way, as though patiently humouring a lunatic, while the subversive radical side of this reactionary dowager was given an intriguing outlet through the gender ambiguity.

Bourne admires drag acts like Regina Fong. "She's like a naughty auntie who probably drinks too much gin but who'll give you a ten bob note on the side", and Lily Savage, "who was brought up with a lot of women and has a great warmth of feeling towards them". The ones he can't stand are those "who have no consciousness at all of what women think" and who believe that they can make themselves women by simply dolling up in fashions that have been dictated to women by men in the first place.

A biographical note in the programme for the recent production of Orton's Funeral Games, in which Bourne played a distinctly dodgy vicar, described him as "thrilled to be descending for a second time into the twilight world of the heterosexual". But what about other heterosexual women? Having broken his duck with Bracknell, would he like to carry on with female impersonation? "Well, of course, I want to do more, although I'm aware that there aren't enough parts for women to go round as it is. For men to be nicking Lady Bracknell... I suppose I'd like to play some of the great tragic heroines, but I'd have to think very carefully about it. A lot of the Elizabethan plays - those are parts that were written for men and boys originally and that feels safer in a way." Bourne has already excelled as a queenily fastidious Jaques in Maria Aitken's Thirties film-set version of As You Like It. But in female roles, there would be the added advantage of historical authenticity. Let's hear it for Bette Bourne at the Globe...

n 'Sarrasine' is at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London W6 from 18 Sept to 12 Oct. Booking: 0181-741 2311

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