As Leeds enters the final few months of its Year of Culture, the variety and quality of events shows no sign of slowing. Transform festival returned to the city with another hugely ambitious and eye-opening programme, bringing voices & talent from around the globe together for a week of bold, brave, vivid and socially-conscious culture across the city.
PUMPITOPERA: TRANSATLANTICA is the embodiment of Transform’s mission, combining artforms, genres, international perspectives and atypical stories for a wild and poignant performance. Brazilian artist collective MEXA are behind the show – and MEXA have quite the story to tell. The cast and creators formed the collective in 2015 following episodes of violence in homeless shelters in São Paulo. As a group of LGBTQIA+ people, they have found a safe haven in queer nightlife, performances and drag shows, culminating in the collaborative effort of PUMPITOPERA, which stops in Leeds as part of a world tour.
The show combines theatre, 90s rave, drag, comedy and documentary; it moves fast as it flashes and spins, with The Warehouse in Holbeck reimagined into a confessional queer discoteque (something I’m sure the owners always had in mind for the venue). And at the heart of all this, MEXA reinterpret one of the oldest bits of literature known: Homer’s Odyssey.
“My name itself is an Odyssey,” says one of the performers, capturing the essence of PUMPITOPERA. Each person has been on their own odyssey to realise their identity, to fully form the person they wanted to become.
So many aspects of PUMPITOPERA make it feel contemporary: the music, the show tech, the performers stories, yet it never gets away from the motif of its ancient “source material”. The persistence of Homer’s story, appearing in this context, speaks to its prescience and reminds us how weirdly consistent human struggle is through history. In his 8th century poem, Homer pits the protagonist up against endless obstacles, overcoming them with sacrifice, perseverance, realisation and will. The cast of MEXA’s obstacles are not mythic creatures or places or a Cyclops, but are societal, economic, medical. Their lives are real, but they proudly share the same heroic traits of Odysseus in their own unique ways.“This is not a drag show,” reads the on-screen subtitles. “It’s a Greek tragedy.”
Alongside the odyssey of the self, the show also explains MEXA’s journey from Sao Paulo to Leeds. The audience is fed footage of the team meeting at their home and departing from their town. Screens downstage show them on aeroplanes and exploring cities, as they journey across the world to share this story.
This metanarrative is paired with an enthusiastic engagement with the audience that creates a sense of presence, a feeling that their narrative is unfolding before you and that you’re part of it. MEXA have no interest in the fourth wall or fear of judgement, holding eye contact, removing clothes, inviting you on stage. They are honest and involved with the audience, managing to close thousands of miles worth of distance and differences so you can feel like a character in their self-made mythology.
MEXA’s story is personal, but performed with such pride that it becomes hugely inspiring. To have them in Leeds, witnessing them on their journey to discover themselves and the world, and to see the audience participating in the MEXA oddysey, makes you grateful to be in this city.