Philip Venables’ new work The Gender Agenda is in response to a commission from the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne that seeks to “create pieces designed to explore the relationship between the audience and the artist”, as well as “to challenge their conventionally assigned roles”.
His solution has been to co-opt his previous collaborator, performance artist and self-characterised “anti-drag queen” David Hoyle, as the host of a live game show — or at least a politically charged travesty thereof. In a parallel challenge to roles that are conventionally assigned, the aim is to satirise and ultimately overturn normative binary assumptions about gender, using the banality of an overfamiliar format.
Heavily (if deliberately clumsily) made-up, and openly celebrating the trans characteristics of his stage persona, Hoyle is here more user-friendly than in some of his earlier TV appearances — as if the edgy Divine David of his former Channel 4 persona had morphed into the late Sir Bruce Forsyth. Members of the clearly onside audience who have allowed themselves to be drawn into the entertainment are invariably “looking lovely, my darling”.
Composer Venables, who himself appears in a video section as the victim of slut-shaming, is also responsible for the text, his fervent views on politics and sexuality worn throughout like badges of honour; though the risk of the result turning preachy is not entirely avoided, as such easy targets as mansplaining, manspreading and toxic masculinity are laboriously set up only to be triumphantly knocked down.
Venables also seizes on the limited musical possibilities offered by the game show format, supplying interludes and accompaniments that parody a wide range of high-flown or popular idioms, here ably purveyed by conductor Jessica Cottis and the London Sinfonietta — one of the four new-music ensembles that will premiere the piece in various centres. A rough-hewn so-called Sprechchor (speaking chorus) shouts its contributions and director Ted Huffman organises the mordant revels.
Altogether stronger is Illusions, a more earnestly doctrinal 15-minute video premiered during Hull’s 2017 City of Culture celebrations in which Hoyle’s tirades against the status quo find a punchy accomplice in Venables’ percussive writing for hard-hitting nine-piece ensemble.