Callisto at the Arcola: four queer stories over 600 years

Callisto: A Queer Epic

Callisto: A Queer Epic - Credit: Archant

Emma D’Arcy talks to Zoe Paskett about the return of Callisto: a queer epic to the Arcola Theatre

Emma D'Arcy, actor and artistic director of theatre company Forward Arena

Emma D'Arcy, actor and artistic director of theatre company Forward Arena - Credit: Archant

In a café near her home in Stoke Newington, Emma D’Arcy is talking about her latest epic endeavour.

The last time I saw D’Arcy was back in August, when she was on stage alongside Ben Whishaw in Against at the Almeida.

“It was a complete gift,” she says of the production. “I do feel vastly lucky and the cast and company were just he most fascinating dynamic complicated extraordinary people and I made a lot of friends.”

Taking up acting in a serious way while studying fine art, she met the peers she would go on to found her theatre company with.

Now, after a long development, Forward Arena is putting out their third iteration of a play. Four queer stories across 600 years – If that isn’t “epic” I don’t know what is.

‘Callisto: a queer epic’, written by Hal Coase, takes the audience from 1680 to 2223, following the intertwining fictional and nonfictional relationships between four pairs of people.

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D’Arcy is artistic director of Forward Arena, who have worked on Callisto for the past two and a half years. Taking it to Edinburgh Fringe festival in its original form and a short run at the Arcola last year, the play has developed from a set of four monologues to a much bigger venture.

The first story is of Arabella Hunt, a 17th century opera star who married a woman called Amy Porter in the first recorded lesbian marriage in British history.

“The only reason they didn’t hang was that Arabella claimed in court that she had no idea that her husband was not a man,” says D’Arcy. “It finds its way into the play in a really beautiful, funny speech, where she says: ‘If I’m a Christian woman, how should I know what a man is?’”

The second story is another true tale of the friendship between Alan Turing and the mother of his first love, Christopher Morcom, who passed away young.

A 1970s porn studio makes up part of the third story, set in the San Fernando Valley, where Tammy comes in search of the love of her life, while the final piece takes place on the moon in 2223, where Lorn and his A.I. companion Cal are building a refuge.

“I think we came much closer to fulfilling the size of the show last year when we were at the Arcola,” says D’Arcy, “however, it was only a week and the turnaround was hugely fast.”

With a cast of eight, the majority of whom are queer themselves, directed by Thomas Bailey (co-founder of Forward Arena), it’s an ambitious project and one that warranted a return, especially given the positive critical response.

“I think the Arcola studio served it beautifully last year in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. And the way in which I’ve designed the space for the show means it feels like a light box made specifically for it.

“There’s something exciting and naughty about trying to do fringe theatre that has loads of actors, because obviously it’s a nightmare!” she says. “I think that kind of scope is really exciting.

“What has been a joy this time round has been to readdress structure, because it’s like an endless playground. Each time you rearrange the jigsaw, you get different resonant frequencies.”

D’Arcy points to the show’s structure and design as elements she is particularly proud of. The costumes and parlance remain true to the period, which opens the door for some surreal encounters.

“Someone in 17th century full dress walking into someone who’s in a space uniform – that head-on collision of times and aesthetics and ways of thinking is a big part of the show.

While the narratives weave in and out of one another, she says that the individual storylines “form a quite traditional story structure.

“Some of those mythic arcs are very familiar – the star-cross’d lovers, the epic journey – but it uses those for queer voices.

“Maybe the thing that I like most is that in some of the future storylines, you can see ways in which they’re living in the historic context of an earlier one.

“That’s very important when you’re thinking about the oppression of the people and understanding and acknowledging what those histories are.”

‘Callisto: a queer epic’ by Forward Arena runs at the Arcola Theatre from December 5 – 23

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