Cowbois stars say queer Western ‘feels like theatre history’

Sophie Melville as Miss Lillian (L) and Vinnie Heaven as Jack Cannon.

The stars of trans-masc non-binary playwright Charlie Josephine’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production Cowbois have spoken to PinkNews about celebrating genderqueer lives on stage.

Josephine has experience of shaking up age-old institutions, with forward-looking takes on classic tales. Last year, their Globe Theatre show I, Joan, caused a transphobic media storm after portraying historical figure Joan of Arc as a non-binary character.

But the backlash has not deterred the acclaimed writer, who is now tackling the traditional toxic masculinity commonly associated with the Western genre, with their fresh, subversive and liberating play Cowbois.

“I’ve always loved cowboys. I wanted to be one growing up,” Josephine says. “They’re just f**king cool; the swagger.

“But, revisiting the genre as an adult, I’ve realised the darker truth of that white cis straight male gaze version of the Hollywood cowboy.”

Inspired by the works of literary change-makers Audre Lorde, Adrienne Maree Brown and Esther Perel, Josephine knew the themes they wanted to dig into with this ambitious stage production.

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“I wanted to write about masculinity in bodies that are not assigned male at birth,” he explained. “I wanted to write about female desire, when it’s free from the male gaze. I wanted to write about grief and love and sex and violence.

Vinnie Heaven as Jack Cannon. (Henri T/RSC)
Vinnie Heaven plays Jack Cannon in Cowbois. (Henri T/RSC)

“I wanted to write about transition. Not just between/across genders, but across the gap between who I really am and who I’m currently letting myself be.”

Enter Cowbois “handsome bandit” Jack Cannon, played by Vinnie Heaven, who, while on the run, arrives in a backwards town that’s fallen victim to a cis heteronormative patriarchal mind-set.

As a trans masc cowboy, his presence undeniably shakes things up when he come across Miss Lillian (Sophie Melville), who is married to the local saloon’s head honcho, and running the town in her husband’s absence.

“[Jack is] an adult character, which is still unusual for non-binary and trans masc parts, who are often young people,” non-binary actor Heaven says. “There are not many with full adult lives.”

As for Miss Lillian, Melville describes her as “the mother of the town, the glue, the agony aunt” but, as a “cis, seemingly heterosexual, woman”, she has never had time to question her desires.

“Then sexy cowboy bandit Jack turns up and for the first time she has a moment of stillness, and questions everything,” Melville adds.

Miss Lillian’s “gorgeous queer awakening” throughout the play is a story arc that closely resonates with Melville.

“I grew up in Swansea and didn’t have any queer representation so I assumed I was straight and slowly realised I’m really f**king not. That’s why I love Miss Lillian, I see a lot of myself in her.”

Melville and Heaven are not the only cast member who deeply connect with their characters: Several members of the cast are part of the LGBTQ+ community and playing roles that reflect their own identities.

For example, trans character Lou (introduced as Lucy at the start of the play) is portrayed by rising star Lee Braithwaite. “My character is very similar to [me],” they say.

“They meet Jack and go on a journey of discovery around their gender and sexuality. There are some really beautiful moments in there.

You won’t be seeing any Hollywood-style cowboys in Charlie Josephine’s RSC play. (Henri T/RSC)

“The show doesn’t preach at you,” Braithwaite continues. “It just tells the story of these people in a beautiful, organic way. I’m going through a lot of personal stuff in my life and exploring my trans identity and I feel so held [by the cast and crew].”

According to LJ Parkinson, who plays “gun-slinging, queer Columbus cowboy” Charley Parkhurst, the whole production team underwent a series of talks about the “decolonisation” of Shakespeare and had lectures delivered by LGBTQ+ charity Gendered Intelligence to create a safe space on set.

“[Charley is] a really heightened version of a cowboy who’s wearing their queerness unapologetically,” Parkinson says.

“The whole thing is about a dysfunctioning community, a failing utopia built upon patriarchy. When this queer cowboy comes, the veil of heteronormative ideology just folds away and cracks of oppression start to form.

“I feel like people are going to walk away with a little light switch down in their thoughts about the way they approach queer people, the way that we think about queer love, the way we think about bisexuality and pansexuality.”

One way the play challenges perceptions of LGBTQ+ love is through the explicitly intimate scenes between Jack and Miss Lilian that are scattered throughout the play.

“Vinnie is so brilliant at consent,” Melville reflects, “which we should all be. Moment-to-moment we felt safe with each other, safe enough to fail and to go where we need to go without feeling at all nervous.

“We were showing what feels right for our queer bodies and not just queerness in general. It’s really f**king bold for the RSC to be showing this and it was something that I fought for from day one of rehearsals, so we got to see gorgeous queer sex through queer bodies.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Heaven who was determined to not “hold the weight of representing the community”.

Otherwise, they said, you don’t commit to anything because you just get overridden with the thought ‘what if that’s not how other people feel?’

Cowbois. (Henri T/RSC)
The western is given a very queer twist in Cowbois. (Henri T/RSC)

As for the risk of a backlash, if anything it’s fuelling the cast and crew’s resolve to put on the show of a life time.

“Fear fuels and sustains power,” Heaven says. “If you are able to recognise that and to know that people will use that fear to feed their power to try to bring you down, then you’re able to be deliberately fearless.”

And the actor has no doubt that Josephine’s works – from I, Joan and Birds and Bees to Flies – is shaping the history of theatre alongside a handful of other genderqueer playwrights such as Travis Alabanza and Abigail Thorn.

“These artists that are leading the way at the moment, it feels like theatre history,” they say, hoping that LGBTQ+ members of the audience will feel inspired.

“There’s something unbeatable about sitting in a space, looking live at a human being who is like you. It helps you to picture being on your version of your stage in your life and also receiving adoration.”

But while Cowbois offers a standout LGBTQ+ cast with a rarely seen nuanced expression of trans working-class bodies, Josephine is not in the business of educating.

“I’m focusing on making the art I needed to see growing up, that I still need to see: stories that centre working-class women and queer people, beautiful art about trans people that reminds us we can all live more freely,” he says.

Cowbois is running at RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 18 November. Tickets are available here.