Ask any bisexual what the main struggle they face is and they will likely say ‘visibility’: the impression of being neither seen nor heard, often invalidated in a world where a binary is the norm, where things are either black or white; gay or straight. Mark Ravenhill’s play, Citizenship, brings to light the complex and nuanced nature of bisexuality, tracing the main character Tom’s complex journey in the exploration of his identity, from adolescent naivety and insecurity to a final, defiant yearning for belonging. Nightjar Theatre Productions succeeds in a sensitive yet witty portrayal of the growing pains of burgeoning sexuality, which holds resonance for a new generation of teens.
Knowing that Citizenship spoke on an individual’s struggle with sexuality, I was expecting a cliché exploration of the main character’s difficulties in ‘finding himself’: a narrative that LGBTQ+ individuals know to be a far cry away from the often painful process of reconciling one’s sexual identity with the unfortunately omnipresent anti-LGBT discourse. But where Citizenship shines is in its direct yet deft handling of bold subject matter – not limited to self-harm, sexuality and teenage pregnancy – and in its sensitive and considered portrayal of the unique struggles of not fitting neatly at one end of the gay-straight spectrum. Indeed, the full-to-the-brim BT Studio on opening night seems to be a testament to the perennial importance to a new generation of such questions of sexuality and identity.
I was entranced by how effortlessly Waddon inhabits the persona of the ambivalent, endlessly anxious Tom. He and Wayze have a natural rapport on stage, contributing to a natural and candidly open portrayal of Tom’s struggles. His nail-biting, hand-wringing nervous tic contributes to the anguished view of naïve adolescence that is so central to Ravenhill’s drama.
This impression is built on, through the sexual tension and awkwardness perceived in so many teenage interactions, portrayed candidly through the messy friendship between Tom (Henry Waddon) and his best friend Amy (Olivia Krauze). Krauze brings this loving yet insecure character to life through delicate physicality, defensively crossed arms and sardonic eye rolls, as she shrugs off the comically ridiculous hollow mantras she is instructed to repeat to herself to cure her of the mental health struggles she faces.
At the heart of our understanding of the play is Tom’s patronising and agitated schoolteacher De Clark (Harry Berry), who is implicitly gay. However, De Clark’s reticence to help Tom explore his sexuality seems to be Ravenhill’s plea for a shift in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell culture commonplace in schools. Indeed, if Tom’s citizenship teacher is unable to help him explore questions of sexuality, then this begs the question: who is Tom to turn to? In this sense, Ravenhill accurately captures the acute sense of isolation inherent within this questioning of one’s identity: the distinct feeling of being on the periphery, an outsider looking in. Here, what Waddon and Berry do so well is portray the strangely awkward intimacy between two strangers who connect in a shared divergence from a heterosexual identity, but who are unable to talk about this freely together.
Citizenship made me feel understood and validated; I saw my own struggle in the acceptance of my bisexual identity reflected in Tom’s initial confusion, in his gradual realisation of the inadequacy of the narrowly defined, restrictive labels which didn’t describe him, coupled with his growing confidence and expression of his sexuality. It encapsulates perfectly the paradoxical fragility of the pursuit for a fixed, concrete identity as reconciled with the ever-evolving identities which are a natural part of adolescence.
It is a credit to the cast, director (Anna Myrmus) and producer (Tracey Mwaniki) that the rapport between characters is so effortless on stage, meaning the authentic, witty repartee – which stands out as a particular highlight of the production for me, often eliciting full belly laughs from the audience – allows the piece to tackle such sensitive subject matter in an approachable and relatable way.
The pervasive pressure to the very end of the play to ‘decide’ on a fixed identity is compounded by Amy’s insensitive insistence that Tom has “gone gay” despite his assertion of his enduring attraction to her, highlighting perfectly the sexuality binary that Ravenhill is protesting. The production finishes on a poignant note as Tom wrestles with his unfulfilled desire for genuine emotional connection, moving closer to an understanding of what he wants whilst remaining uncertain.
Citizenship doesn’t afford its audience any easy answers about a conclusion to Tom’s journey; instead, it encourages deep, internal reflection which stays with its audience long after leaving the theatre. A witty, thoughtful and true-to-life piece which grapples with topical subject matter, Citizenship is a must-see for anyone seeking to gain a greater insight into bisexuality and the modern teenage condition.