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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Cas Bradbeer


Above Image: Woodcut of Moll used for the frontispiece of The Roaring Girl (1611); Ink on paper, 12.7 x 15cm; Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

This dissertation applied a design historical methodology to three contemporary theatrical representations of a Jacobean gender non-conforming figure known as Moll Cutpurse. In so doing, this research project determined the extent to which these productions challenged conventional academic definitions of punk and affirmed the value of speculative histories of marginalised identities. 

Focusing on costume and movement, I analyse how the productions articulate open kinships with the past. I also consider how they subversively repurpose aspects of the cultural establishments they operate in, and how they navigate tropes for representing gender non-conforming people in performance—particularly hypersexualisation, irrational aggression and pathologisation—, thereby demonstrating theatre’s function in reconfiguring notions of identity to be more inclusive. 

The first section of my dissertation applies this analysis to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s feminist production of The Roaring Girl (2014), while my second section explores two shows performed by drag kings at Shakespeare’s Globe—Moll and The Future Kings (2019) and A Note to Mary Frith (2020).

Overall, these case studies exemplify how theatrical practitioners can achieve inclusive platforms for marginalised histories by creatively repurposing the collective memory of gender non-conforming historical figures like Moll, and thereby can empower those of us who share these marginalised identities. As one transgender participant in my research aptly commented, 'It doesn’t have to be an accurate portrait to demonstrate that people were thinking about gender ambiguity before the Victorian era—that’s what matters'.

I deeply resonated with several of these productions, even to the point of tears, as I related to their presentation of Moll as a gender non-conforming person who fought hard to wear what they wanted. Productions like these have the capacity to make trans and gender non-conforming audiences feel seen, inspiring us to feel that we are not unjustified in our rebellion but are rather part of a long legacy of people fighting what feels like the same fight. Through this retrospective connection, we reach out to feel touched by the past—touched by long lost allies like Moll who remind us that we are not alone.

Performers on stage at the RSC's Swan Theatre
The Roaring Girl (2014)Photographed by Helen Maybanks.
Performers on stage at Shakespeare's Globe
Moll and The Future Kings (2019)Photographed by Anna Crisp. Set design by Jessica Worral. Costumes styled by Mal Parry and the performers.
Chair on stage at Shakespeare's Globe
A Note to Mary Frith (2020)Empty chair symbolising Moll's ghost. Photographed by Becky Dell.

My Queer Eye on the V&A

At the V&A, Tour Guides research their own tours, which has given me a very exciting opportunity as a V&A LGBTQIA+ Guide to curate my own selection of my favourite queer-resonant objects on public display in the V&A's collection.

I have selected objects from a sandstone sculpture of the intersex-resonant Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara to an eighteenth century porcelain statuette of the queer Greco-Roman mythological figure Ganymede and his lover Zeus/Jupiter. I draw from references as broad as 1970s gay socialist journals, nineteenth century Japanese erotic prints and the epic Metamorphoses by the Roman poet, Ovid.

I also relate objects to contemporary queer contexts, such as Paul Harfleet's Pansy Project, which creates sites of healing community organisation by planting pansies at sites of homophobic and transphobic abuse. Harfleet was featured in an exhibition I curated last year about LGBTQIA+ ecology, so I find it really special to bring this connection of queerness, nature and community activism into the V&A.

Come join my tours! I'll be continuing to do these after I graduate from this MA.

Compilation of images of objects from my tour.
A selection of objects from my tour. Images courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

They/ThemTheir: Naturally Not Binary

As I was getting ready to join the RCA, I completed an exhibition of queer ecology I curated at IMT Gallery in August 2023. They/ThemTheir: Naturally Not Binary brought together over forty queer artists whose practice examined issues around representing queer ecology.

In a time when we are facing an ecological crisis and queer spaces have been closing at a terrifying rate, it feels so important to have exhibitions like this. They offer us an opportunity to reimagine our futures as queer people and as part of nature. And by making space for ecosystems of queers, they can provide the connective tissue through which artists can collaborate, while also establishing platforms to raise the visibility of their practice.

There were too many gorgeous moments from our exhibits and events programme to recount here, but I’m so glad to be able to look up from my laptop now as I sit in my flat and see the vibrant placards and murals co-created by all the lovely people who came along to our show. When I look at them, I’m reminded of all the memories we shared, which I feel are epitomised this extract from a poem we featured in the show:

“We discover ourselves beside one another, laying within the leaves, beneath the embroidered clover ~ watching the invisible stars. We slide into the spaces of one another, growing into a singular body ~ an elegant, quiet ocean.” - Imogen Mansfield, ‘Ithir Milis’

Installation view.
Installation view.
Installation view.
Installation view.
Installation view.
Installation view.
Cas sitting on an artwork, in an exhibition they curated at IMT Gallery. They are wearing blue trousers and a blue shirt.
Cas engaging with one of the exhibits at the Private View.

Last year Cas graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art’s History of Art BA, receiving the Dean’s Prize for Overall Performance. Their research there included a reappraisal of the trans resonance of an ancient Mesopotamian deity featured in a sculpture called The Burney Relief that is now kept in the British Museum. Their dissertation was on queer exhibitions produced by a Vietnamese artist-curator called Nhung Đinh, and they presented this research at the Association for Art History's annual conference in Spring 2023. 

Cas also worked with Nhung when she was one of the featured artists of a queer ecology group exhibition that they curated at IMT Gallery last Summer, They/Them/Their: Naturally Not Binary. While they were at the Courtauld, they also curated exhibitions at Ugly Duck (such as Crafting Ourselves, Winter 2022) and Grand Junction (such as Building Grand Junction, Autumn 2020). Additionally, they presented my research at venues such as the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Maritime Museum.

This academic year, Cas ran the Royal College of Art's Queer Society, producing a range of events such as panels with guest speakers like Professor Richard Sandell and drag performers Cyro and George the Dragon. Cas’s Queer Society won the RCA Students' Union Society of the Year, particularly for their event Black Queer Artists in Conversation. They are now producing an exhibition of intersectional feminist commodities entitled Do You Buy This?, co-curated with three of their fellow History of Design MA students. This show is funded by the V&A, RCA and the Design History Society, and it will be hosted by Ugly Duck in August 2023.

Cas hosts 'Trans Tales: Musically Moving Museums' at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cas Bradbeer (they/them) is a curator who studied the MA in History of Design, offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Their research has focused on historical representations of gender non-conformity, especially in theatre.

Their essays for this MA have explored contemporary performances relating to Moll Cutpurse (the seventeenth-century gender non-conforming thief and performer) and the V&A's collection of prints relating to George Beauchamp (the nineteenth-century pantomime Dame).

During the MA, they curated a set of performances in the galleries by three non-binary drag performers for the annual V&A Performance Festival. They have also recently begun volunteering as a V&A LGBTQIA+ Tour Guide and look forward to continuing this after graduation.

Left Image: Cas hosts 'Trans Tales: Musically Moving Museums', photographed by Mishko Papic at the Victoria & Albert Museum.