A queer pirate punk Shakespearean musical by Madelaine Empson
Shakespeare wrote a lot of characters called Antonio. Ania Upstill (they/them) wanted to create and mine a world where the Antonios from Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice collide and coalesce. What if they were all the same dude? And not just any dude, but a queer pirate?
And so, together with their co-creator William Duignan, Ania wrote an original queer pirate punk Shakespearean musical called Antonio!
Antonio! premiered at The Tank in New York City in July and has only just finished its August season at Edinburgh Fringe, where it was described as “joyously chaotic” (The Stage) and “a gleeful deconstruction of love and lust” (Binge Fringe). I caught up with Ania post-NYC, pre-Edinburgh to chat about the work and their theatre company, Butch Mermaid Productions, which makes work by, for, and about queer people and their joy.
When did you develop a passion for theatre?
My parents were very positive about theatre – I mean, they weren’t grooming us for a role in it or anything [laughs]. But they put us into drama camp when we were quite young and it was always just a part of our lives. This is funny because I ended up doing a lot of Shakespeare, but I remember the first thing we did was the play within a play from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played the lion, and my mum made me a yarn mane, which is still in their house.
You’re a self-professed Shakespeare nerd. On a scale of one to Uber Nerd (10), where do you put yourself and why?
I think I used to be a 10, but I’ve gone back to an eight, simply because I’ve gained other interests. I’m still very nerdy about it! I love the language and think I was introduced to it early enough that it was exciting instead of scary. Kids are the best at Shakespeare. They’re just like, ‘oh this is different, that’s not bad’, whereas I think adults sometimes, we’re like, ‘I don’t immediately understand it so I feel stupid’. Kids be like, ‘I don’t understand things all the time. I have a tiny brain’.
How did Antonio! come about and where does it fit into the Butch Mermaid Productions timeline?
My focus as our district director and sole proprietor [chuckles] has always been queerness, queer work, and trans work – those things are sort of in the same umbrella and sort of not. The first show that I did under Butch Mermaid was a solo show, which was very much about my gender and my identity. As I’ve made more work with other people, it’s become more about other people’s experiences. Antonio! in a way is a love letter to Will, who was my collaborator on Too Much Hair. It is kind of inspired by being more interested in, or exposed to, this ‘what if’ in Shakespeare. It’s a very queer and male story in a lot of ways, and I’m not male, so collaborating with Will has allowed me to write it.
In writing Antonio!, what elements were already inherent in the Shakespeare canon that lent themselves to becoming not just a queer story, but a queer punk musical?
I think that more and more, it’s accepted, at least in early modern literature and circles (again, deep nerd), that Shakespeare might have been queer. Mental or emotional or physical, unclear, but there is a lot of writing especially around the sonnets that’s like, hmm, this was probably not just to one woman.
When I was in England last year on the way to Edinburgh Fringe, taking my solo show there, they had started doing these tours at Shakespeare’s Globe focused on queer history in the time of Shakespeare. It was going to that and realising that queerness, or the worldview on queerness, was kind of normal in Elizabethan England. The baseline assumption was that anyone could be attracted to anyone – it wasn’t like, some people are gay and they’re the weird ones – but you’re not supposed to act on it because sex should only happen within marriage. I think that seeded an interesting idea [for Antonio!] and in a way is more liberal than how most people think of [queerness] even today.
A lot of the Antonios are queerly coded. Antonio is very easy to read in The Merchant of Venice as being in love with Bassanio. He gives him all his money, and Bassanio, after he’s married to Portia, is like, ‘I would give up my wife and my whole life to save you’. I don’t know, strong statement, just sayin’! That’s the easiest one to read, or Antonio in Twelfth Night, who’s in love with Sebastian, Viola’s brother. He goes and follows him to Orsino’s court even though it’s dangerous, he gets arrested, gives Sebastian all his money… People queer code that pretty often. The third Antonio [from Much Ado About Nothing] is the old unmarried uncle of Hero and Beatrice. I was like, he’s a gay uncle, I’m going to make it up. Clearly he’s a gay uncle. So there were two strong ones, and one I was like, I mean, why not? [Laughs.]
What about the decision to make it a punk musical?
Will is a musical writer, and punk is where our musical tastes really align. We were having conversations around how punk is anti-establishment and is relatively gender non-conforming and people get to do what they want. There’s something very gay about punk, yet so few punk musicians are openly out, no one’s really writing gay punk. It feels like a powerful medium to express queerness in.
What was the process of writing Antonio! with Will?
We actually wrote it remotely. I wrote the book and Will wrote most of the music and the songs… in the past month and a half! All but one made it into the final show – it’s amazing what can happen asynchronously. We collaborated a little bit, he’d often write a melodic line and go, ‘what song does this want to be?’ And I’d be like, ‘oh, that sounds like F**k Money’, and he’d write the lyrics to F**k Money. Which is a real song. A real song in the show.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Antonio!?
The way that the company has come together and gelled as a band and as a really beautiful ensemble. I had a friend who came to the show who was like, ‘you’re such a good leader’, and that’s probably the most meaningful feedback for me personally. It’s not my goal to be the best musician, or the best writer, or even the best performer, as much as creating really rich collaborative situations with people who are talented and kind and make really good work together.
The biggest consistent point of my work is the focus on queer joy, as opposed to queer repression, so being able to bring people into the story and have a good time is really important to me. The world’s a bit sad, and we probably need a little bit of a lift!
What do you want Antonio! audiences to take away?
Permission to be themselves, and to love people in whatever way they want to love people.