NTS Fringe hit Adam to make small-screen debut

Telling the story of a male soul trapped in a female body, the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Adam was a huge hit at the Fringe in 2017, and is now about to make its TV debut, writes Joyce McMillan

Adam Kashmiry and Yasmin Al-Khudhairi in Adam PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

It was back in November 2012 that the Citizens’ Theatre’s ground-breaking community company, run by Elly Goodman and Neil Packham, staged a short pre-show performance called Here We Stay, performed by refugees, asylum seekers and “new Scots” living in the area around the theatre. The show was designed to run alongside the smash-hit musical Glasgow Girls; and one of the performers who appeared, in a brief monologue, was a young man called Adam Kashmiry, who had been assigned as a girl when he was born in Egypt in the 1990s, into a conservative culture where there was no word for transsexual, far less any way for Adam to express his intense feeling, from an early age, that he was “a male soul trapped in a female body.”

When the writer, performer and Glasgow Girls director Cora Bissett saw the show, she was immediately struck by the power of Adam’s story. “At that time,” Bissett recalls, “Adam had never thought of a career in theatre. He was completely preoccupied with his struggle to establish his right to remain in Britain, and to find the treatment he needed to complete his transition. Yet even so, when I asked him about the idea of a show based on his story, his response was immediate; he just said yes of course, if my story can help others, then please go ahead. He really is an incredible human, always so pragmatic and positive, despite everything.”

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And although it took almost half a decade, by the summer of 2017 the play Adam – based on Adam’s story, scripted by Glasgow playwright Frances Poet, and directed by Bissett – was ready to roll, as a major National Theatre of Scotland production premiered at the Traverse during the Edinburgh Fringe, alongside Jo Clifford’s Eve. The play – starring Kashmiry as himself and Neshla Caplan as a range of other characters – became one of the hits of that year’s festival, winning a Scotsman Fringe First among many other awards. With Eve, it toured around Scotland; and by 2019, it had also made appearances in London and New York.

So it’s not surprising that when the Covid pandemic hit, in March 2020, the idea of reimagining Adam as a film was near the top of the NTS’s list of possible lockdown projects. “We made some quite major decisions fairly early on,” says Bissett. “We knew we wanted it to be more of a filmed performance than a naturalistic film version of the story. But we also felt that on screen, the idea of having all the characters played by just two actors might be too much of a leap; so we cast different actors in all the main roles. Hopscotch Films and BBC Arts In Quarantine came on board as partners, but we didn’t get the final green light until early December, so I had to cast all the other actors very quickly, to start filming soon after Christmas.”

The screen version of Adam was filmed in the Big Room at the NTS’s Glasgow headquarters in January, with Bissett and award-winning film director Louise Lockwood co-directing; and Bissett admits that shooting under lockdown conditions was a strange experience. “Most of the time,” she explains, “you can keep the actors distanced from each other, and use camera angles to compensate. But there’s one scene in Adam where two characters just have to kiss; and for that, both actors had to be tested, and then quarantine for several days before filming. And it’s very strange keeping the actors apart all the time when they’re not on set; not sociable, and not normal at all.”

For Kashmiry, though, the sheer excitement of seeing his story told by a full-strength team of eight actors compensated for some of the lockdown limitations. Apart from Kashmiry, the cast includes Myriam Acharki as his mother, and Birmingham-based actor Haqi Ali as his father; and Kashmiry feels that he learned a great deal from watching what other actors brought to these roles.

“I played my father in the original production,” says Kashmiry, “so what audiences were seeing was my idea of my father, if you like. But seeing Haqi Ali play the role has really given me a different perspective, and that’s also true of other characters. The film will never quite match the intensity of the live performance, with just the two of us on stage, and the audience living through it with us; but I really hope that it will help to reach a wider audience, and shed an even greater light on the experience of trans people – a much-needed light at the moment, I think.”

Cora Bissett, meanwhile, is very conscious of how the debate on trans rights has changed since Adam first appeared in 2017, becoming much more bitter and contested. “I’ve thought a lot about what our Adam production might be saying in that context,” says Bissett, “and my hope is that this TV version does what any good art seeks to do, which is to invite the audience to understand better. Adam’s story doesn’t directly take on the complexity of trans women’s experience – that’s not his story. But hopefully it allows people into the mind of a human who is going through the acutely painful process of trying to be recognised for who they know themselves to be inside. It’s not a political football, it’s a human being trying to live an authentic life; and if we can help people feel that, in a very visceral way, then I’ll feel we’ve achieved what we set out to do.”

Adam will be broadcast on BBC Scotland on 6 March at 10.15 pm, and later on BBC 4; it will also be available on BBC iPlayer from 7 March.

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