January 30, 2024 - 2:00pm

Acting has historically been a profession where performers are, somewhat ironically, free to be themselves. Yet playwright Charlie Josephine is determined to further increase LGBTQ+ representation in the theatre. The non-binary identifying female writer has sought to do this in her new play Cowbois, which she says aims to “flip the Hollywood version of cowboys that we think about”. 

With so few dramatic frontiers left to conquer, it must be tough for those looking to shake up the boards. But Cowbois has come to the Royal Court Theatre some 30 years after the release of the classic surrealist lesbian film Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, and 20 years after the Oscar-nominated, critically acclaimed Brokeback Mountain. Gay cowboys are not exactly new.

It’s hard to not reflect on the past work of the playwright and observe that she is mining a somewhat narrow and personal seam. Unusually, she has offered thanks to trans lobby groups All About Trans and Gendered Intelligence for their “collaboration and support” for her work. Previous plays include I, Joan, which featured a non-binary Joan of Arc at Shakespeare’s Globe and One of Them Ones, about “two siblings living in a rural community, trying to get their heads around gender identity”. And with all the plodding predictability of an audience shouting “he’s behind you” to a panto dame, Cowbois has a “trans-masculine bandit named Jack” as the romantic lead. Presumably, this is what method acting pioneer Konstantin Stanislavski was warning against when he wrote: “Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.”

But the problem is far wider than the work of one repetitive playwright. Today, a lazy and artless obsession with identity politics has boxed theatre in. In London alone last year there was a trans Frankenstein at Camden People’s Theatre; No ID, a play about living in Britain as a black, transgender immigrant at the Royal Court; and Eddie Izzard’s much-vaunted “one-woman” production of Great Expectations

As actor James Dreyfus told me, “the arts are already fully ‘inclusive’.” Commenting on the drive for non-binary representation, he added:

Give us Shakespeare in wheelchairs, please! That would be ‘inclusion’. But to act as if ‘non-binary’ people are in any way forging the path for ‘LGBTQ+ etc’ people is at best disingenuous and at worst a severely misguided move. Such efforts will ultimately wreak havoc on audience attendance and badly needed financial support. Visibility is important for those who’ve been loathed and marginalised for years. But being ‘non-binary’ elicits nothing more than a nod and a shrug. No persecution, no hatred, no alienation. What exactly is the end goal of this misplaced focus? It beats most people, believe me.
- James Dreyfus

From the prescriptive casting notes which stipulate that actors should share the characteristics of the characters they play, to Arts Council England funding which seems geared toward the number of diversity tick boxes met, quality is being quashed in theatre. Under these conditions, actors, directors and playwrights of talent are at risk of being pushed off stage.

But there is surely nothing more establishment, nor more mainstream, than plays which claim to centre the marginalised for the entertainment of London theatregoers. At least now heterosexual couples can content themselves that they’ve still got an edge, and that they’ve done their bit for inclusion.

Theatre is built from artifice and the polite suspension of disbelief. But, in 2024, it is stretching credulity to the limit for playwrights to pretend that LGBTQ+ voices aren’t routinely heard in auditoriums. Cowbois and the slew of similar plays are pushing at an open saloon door.

Josephine Bartosch is a freelance writer and assistant editor at The Critic.