Sunday, September 24

Divina De Campo: ‘For a queer or trans kid, it’s a seminal moment to see yourself reflected on stage’ | stage

IIt was in 2007, while working in Ibiza, that the drag queen Divina De Campo finally got to watch the 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, thanks to a colleague who had the DVD. Before then, she had unsuccessfully tried to persuade her of her then boyfriend to watch it with her on their weekend trips to Blockbuster. “I loved it, I just thought the whole thing was incredible,” she recalls. “And a real epiphany, like, how have I wasted these five years of not seeing this amazing film?” Ever since, she has wanted to play the role of Hedwig, a genderqueer rocker – even cheekily tweeting that she would be up for it after coming runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK in 2019.

And now, it’s finally happening. Next month, she will take on the role of Hedwig – her first major lead of her in a musical – for a revival of the show that the film was based on, at Leeds Playhouse. “It’s like putting on a new coat, but one I’ve really wanted for a long time,” she says. Speaking after a day of rehearsals, she and director Jamie Fletcher – who have known each other for more than 18 years – look far from washed out. Instead, they are animated and bubbly, riffing off one another and frequently erupting into laughter. “We’re going for a curr-eh!” De Campo says excitedly exaggerating her Yorkshire accent, when I ask what they’re doing after our hour-long interview. Then she tilts back her shaved head, letting out a euphoric cackle, something she tends to do a lot.

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Dynamic duo … Divina De Campo rehearses as Hedwig with Elijah Ferreira as her husband Yitzhak. Photograph: The Other Richard

First staged as an off-Broadway musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch explores the life story of its titular, fictional rock singer. Born as Hansel Schmidt, a self-described “slip of a girlyboy”, in communist East Germany, she falls in love with an American GI in her 20s, and is coerced by him into having gender-reassignment surgery so that they can marry as husband and wife and emigrate to the US. Only, the operation goes wrong, leaving Hedwig with an “angry inch”. Worse still, the GI leaves her on her first wedding anniversary. Hedwig recounts her story of her while touring dive bars in 1990s America with her unsuccessful band of hers, the Angry Inch, embittered after another former lover stole her songs from her to become a hugely successful rock star. Eventually, she finds peace within herself.

While the film flopped at its box office opening – being released the day after the 11 September attacks probably didn’t help – it has since amassed a cult following, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community, where DVDs circulated among friends. Both the film and the musical are the work of scriptwriter John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask. Fletcher’s revival sees the cast take on the original stage version but she has also looked to the film for inspiration. Ultimately, says Fletcher, this new production is “about being free to just be able to be your whole self without having to fit a mould. However you might identify, I think that we all experience these things about feeling like we’re having to behave or look a particular way in order to fit in.”

What can audiences expect? “The show itself is like a rollercoaster: you’re going to, like, a rock concert and then suddenly, you’re at some cabaret in the middle of a Pizza Express,” De Campo promises. “You get real punk rocky stuff right the way through to more ballads.” She describes it as a “really, really gay Rocky Horror Show – if that’s possible”, with the “same sort of gritty, B-movie feeling to it, but also there’s a little bit more honesty there”. Local gems will be swapped in for the original’s US setting, with a northern working men’s club and Leeds’s vast Roundhay Park both featuring.

Leading the way … director Jamie Fletcher.
Leading the way … director Jamie Fletcher. Photograph: The Other Richard

While De Campo is known for her four-octave vocal range, Hedwig’s soundtrack channels David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in a production that is 100 minutes long. How are rehearsals going? “I am surprised at how well my voice is holding [up], if I’m fully honest, because I’m used to singing traditional musical theater and pop and classical stuff, so things that aren’t so stressful on my voice. But there’s a lot of rasp, there’s a lot of growl, and we’re throwing some high stuff in there as well, where it makes sense,” she says, with a shrill cackle.

Hedwig’s gender expression has connected with transgender, non-binary and cisgender people alike. Yet there has been controversy in the past over who she should get her to play its lead character from Ella: a 2020 Sydney production was canceled after complaints about its casting of a cis male in the lead role. Mitchell and Trask, who are both non-binary, have argued that the role should be “open to anyone who can tackle it and, more importantly, anyone who needs it… Though we’ve always been so pleased to hear trans folks find resonance in the character’s journey to find his/herself, it’s really through drag and performance that Hedwig does so, creating a persona that is ‘more than a woman or a man’.”

For this revival, Hedwig is seen as a genderqueer, feminine-presenting individual, rather than as a drag queen. “Hedwig is more of an identity,” says De Campo of her interpretation of her. “So, some of the iterations of the show have very much tried to be, like, ‘she She’s a drag queen.’ But that doesn’t feel real … I think she’s in the kind of non-binary, genderqueer space, [but] she’s definitely more on the femme side.” Fletcher adds: “How many drag queens would go out in full regalia to just get a pint of milk from the shop. [as Hedwig would]?” De Campo jokes back: “Yeah, I’m not going down the middle aisle of Aldi in full drag!”

Origin story … John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001).
Origin story … John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). photograph: Alamy

The cast is filled with transgender, non-binary and queer artists, including Elijah Ferreira as Hedwig’s second husband Yitzhak. “I’m a trans woman so I’ve always thought it’s important that queer and trans people get to tell our own stories,” says Fletcher. “By doing so, you bring that nuance and honesty and integrity to a show.” De Campo, whose alter ego Owen Farrow is non-binary, points to the success of Russell T Davies’s television drama It’s a Sin. “It’s a queer show, filled with queer people, and they bring that lifetime of experience with them,” she adds.

Although first staged more than 20 years ago, Hedwig is more relevant than ever according to De Campo and Fletcher. The day before we speak, Florida’s senate passed a bill to ban discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in primary schools. “You just have to look at how quickly that has happened out there, to go: ‘Actually, maybe we’re not as secure as we thought we were,’” says De Campo. “That’s a big part of why it’s really important that we’re doing this show, in this way, at this point in history.”

The casting of De Campo as Hedwig comes at a time when drag is more mainstream than ever. While De Campo describes drag’s success as being “cyclical” in nature, pointing to the success of Lily Savage and Dame Edna in the 1990s and early 2000s, she adds: “Drag Race has reignited interest in drag and in seeing it as an art form. .” The series, she says, has helped to show how “multifaceted” drag artists are. “I think that’s been really, really interesting that suddenly people are going: ‘Oh, actually, these people are able to do this, and this, and this,’” she says.

The wig's in a box … Divina De Campo rehearses as Hedwig.
The wig’s in a box … Divina De Campo rehearses as Hedwig. Photograph: The Other Richard

In the end, this show is about empowering people to be who they are, say Fletcher and De Campo. “As a queer kid, seeing something like this, it would have absolutely been the thing to really help me,” says Fletcher.

De Campo adds: “It’s one of those seminal moments, isn’t it? When you are a queer kid or a trans kid, or wherever you fit, when you see yourself reflected by the art that’s either on stage or on the TV or on the radio or in a magazine. Suddenly, you go: ‘Oh, there is a place for me as well.’ I think that’s the kind of message of Hedwig – actually, that there is a place for all of us. And you don’t have to know exactly where that place is right at the beginning.”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is at Leeds Playhouse from two-23 April.

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