CORA Bissett says her theatre piece Adam “speaks to the moment”, but it also taps into age-old narratives.

As far back as The Odyssey, one of the first works of fiction, writers have been preoccupied with the concept of journeys, be they literal, metaphorical or both.

Adam, based on a real story, follows a transgender person not only as they transition from girl to boy, but also as they make the treacherous voyage from Egypt to Scotland of all places (“Adam hadn’t even heard of Scotland, he didn’t know what Glasgow was,” says Cora).

Adam himself plays a starring role in the play, which is written by Frances Poet with a score composed by Oliver-award winner Jocelyn Pook. Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, the show won a clutch of awards in its initial Edinburgh run last summer, boosting its profile no end. It’s no wonder Adam has now caught the attention of theatregoers South of the border – it contains a wealth of highly relevant thematic content. When Cora first saw Adam give a ten-minute monologue about his life up to now as part of a community scheme, she was blown away.

“I hate to come across as an exploitative theatre director who always has her eye on the next show, but what I can’t switch off in my brain is a sense of a great story and one that speaks of the moment right now,” says the director. “I had a strong feeling that this needed to be told and that a lot of people would be able to understand the topics we’re dealing with via this person.”

So, Cora approached Adam straight after his monologue. It wasn’t long before they were going for tea together and discussing how best to tell Adam’s tale.

“What struck me is when he got up on stage I saw this endearing but slightly awkward and shy teenage boy,” says Cora. “He just looked like a kid – he was so baby-faced at that point.”

The director has seen the full progression of Adam’s gender transition over the last few years. “He’s morphing all the time,” she says. “Every time we reconnect he looks different to me.” Cora’s hit play Glasgow Girls was being staged in the same theatre that Adam had performed his short autobiographical piece. The director says Adam was “willing” to work with her from the off, and, despite not being from the theatre world, he had a vague sense that Cora was not just some “random nut-job” after she approached him.

Before coming to the UK and discovering transgender people telling their own stories on the internet, Adam felt truly alone, as if he was the only person in the world born in a body that felt alien to him. At one point, his desperation was such that he tried to slice off his own breast.

The context of his home country didn’t help. Cora points out that Egypt is a “very homophobic society, let alone a transphobic one”, and reveals that in the course of her research she came across cases of traps being sprung on online dating websites to arrest gay people.

“Even as he was transitioning, his mother would insist on referring to him in the feminine,” says Cora. “One of the things we focused on in Adam was that you can decide a person’s gender through language.”

The Arab Spring was also unfolding in the background and Cora thought “it was an interesting to parallel the transition of the whole Arab world with the smaller transition of just one person, Adam. Both are revolutions in their own way”.

Upon migrating to Glasgow, Adam holed up in a bedsit flat, “almost going out of his mind” as Cora says. He had no idea what to do to ease the tumult in his head. Cora’s worked hard to conjure this claustrophobia in her play. “Someone in mental meltdown is a hard thing to express,” she says. “When I first chatted with Adam he said his brain was so physically sore, that he was in physical pain.

“We set up ten different cameras in the recreation of his room and filmed him from above, so it feels like he’s being watched from a CCTV camera but he’s also watching himself.

“We have him pacing around his flat to repetitive sounds of being in a small bedsit on your own, watching daytime TV shows.” Another important feature of Adam is that there are two people playing him on stage – a female actress portrays his pre-transition self while Adam plays himself.

Adam found a community, of sorts, on the internet. We have never been more aware of the pitfalls of the web, but it can also give a sense of belonging or identification to those cut adrift from society. Adam began to learn that he wasn’t alone. “The internet can be used for grooming, shaming, all sorts of horrible things,” says Cora. “But in Adam’s case it was an enormous tool for connectivity. It wouldn’t be stretching the point to say that people online basically saved his life.”

Adam started to watch videos of transgender people filming their transitions. Effectively, they became role models to him. Now, he is a role model to others.

“We had a lot of teenage groups in our last run and I could see there was a transgender person in each of those groups,” says Cora. “They were watching with tears in their eyes. That’s what we can do. That’s what the power of theatre can be.

It’s fair to say that there is a lot to unpack in Adam. While awareness of trans life is growing all the time, the play also brings to mind ancient tropes. “The world has always been in a kind of migration crisis,” says Cora. “People have always moved.”

In just a few years, the man at the centre of this story has gone from feeling alien in his own body to a star of the stage.

While Adam still has some way to go on his quest towards embracing his true identity, watching his journey when the show comes to the Festival should be a moving, ultimately life-affirming experience.


Theatre Royal Brighton, Wednesday, May 9, to Saturday, May 12, (8pm, Saturday 7pm),