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Cowbois: This 'big queer Western' is subverting macho tropes and celebrating gender outlaws

Cowbois keeps all the beloved hallmarks of the classic Western, from gun fights and bar room brawls to line dancing, but is populated by working-class women who are inspired and aroused by a sexy trans protagonist fighting against patriarchy

Cowbois, directed by Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes, designed by Grace Smart. Swan Theatre, 13 October 2023. IMAGE: Cowbois production images

“There’s something about the swagger of a cowboy that is just really sexy,” says Charlie Josephine, the acclaimed playwright behind Cowbois, a big queer Western show that tells the story of a handsome outlaw. “And cowboy iconography is so clear and confident.” 

Cowbois follows a trans masculine ‘gender outlaw’ called Jack Cannon (played by trans actor Vinnie Heaven) as he seeks safety in a sleepy Wild West frontier town that, he discovers, is inhabited only by women – the men of the town left in the gold rush and never returned. From the outset, the plot of Cowbois is not the heterosexual, macho, misogynist fare we might expect from a classic Western.

Vinnie Heaven and Sophie Melville in Cowbois. Image: Henri T (c) RSC

This is very much a deliberate choice by Josephine, an award-winning actor and writer who is also co-directing Cowbois. While rewatching old Westerns during one of the Covid lockdowns, Josephine realised that, despite cowboys’ inherent sex appeal, the stories were all “really white, and really racist”. So when they began to write a new show about masculinity for the Royal Shakespeare Company, they knew it would be about cowboys – and that their telling of a cowboy story would subvert the Western genre entirely.

Cowbois keeps all the beloved hallmarks of the classic Western, from gun fights and bar room brawls to line dancing, but is populated by working-class women who are inspired and aroused by a sexy trans protagonist fighting against patriarchy. Sean Holmes, the associate artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe who co-directs Cowbois alongside Josephine, explains that “it’s deliberately an entertainment, as well as a provocation”.

Holmes and Josephine talk to the Big Issue over Zoom from Stratford-upon-Avon. They’ve just come out of a movement class with the cast, and are palpably fizzing with excitement about the show.

Josephine is no stranger to making art that feels provocative. Last year, his re-imagining of Catholic martyr Joan of Arc as non-binary in I, Joan sparked online outrage from anti-trans campaigners and Catholics before the play had even opened at London’s Globe Theatre. The show went on to garner rave reviews from critics and audiences. While I, Joan put non-binary identity centre stage, Cowbois is a show about masculinity, working-class women and queers.  

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Class is central to Josephine’s writing for Cowbois, stemming from his own experience of growing up and never seeing anyone who looked like him on stage or screen. “My gender, queerness and class all intersect – I’m a white person from a working-class background, there’s something about that which all sings together,” he says. There have been some “fantastic changes” in theatre and film when it comes to representation, Josephine says, but adds he is “really impatient for more of that change to happen sooner”. 

Cowbois rehearsal photos, The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21 September 2023. Henri T (c) RSC

“As a writer I get to explore big questions, and it feels really beautiful to then bring working-class artists into that conversation, to allow them the opportunity to have the exploration that maybe they didn’t get when they were younger, because their families weren’t as affluent,” they say. “Often when we talk about queerness it can feel like a very middle class, lofty conversation. Growing up, I didn’t get the chance to have therapy and explore my gender, you know what I mean? There wasn’t time in the day.”

And why did a play exploring masculinity end up being about cowboys? “I just had an instinct,” Josephine says. Perhaps this speaks to the cultural moment that cowboy aesthetic is having – from Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road to the glittery cowboy hat Beyoncé wore to promote her Renaissance world tour. In preparation, Josephine interviewed men and non-binary people about “masculinity and the truth of that”. 

“I asked them, when does it feel good to express masculinity?” Josephine recalls. “When does it feel tender? When have you been shy about expressing something?”

“[I] had some really interesting conversations about gesture, body language and code switching,” they explain, “which really woke me up to the fact that, obviously, the patriarchy is squashing everybody.”

Holmes, who was asked by Josephine to co-direct Cowbois and who is evidently delighted to be involved, says this detailed study of masculinity is “one of the great things in the play”. 

“With the people [in Cowbois] who are most representative of toxic masculinity, you can really understand and see where they’re coming from – even if you don’t agree with their behaviour,” he says. 

The last two plays Holmes directed at the Globe were two Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale (2023) and The Tempest (2022), while the RSC is doing Macbeth before Cowbois. The queer cowboy show stands out a little from its fellows, which feels, perhaps, like something that wouldn’t have happened a decade ago. 

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“The actors and the subject matter are not something that our audience might expect at the RSC,” says Holmes. “And so rather than being confrontational, [Cowbois] really aims to be inclusive in the most broad sense, and bring everyone in. There’s kindness at the heart of it.”

A shot from Cowbois. Image: Henri T (c) RSC

It’s not only the content of the show that is different. Josephine says the RSC has made ticket prices for Cowbois as financially accessible as possible, and is organising coaches from other cities to bring audiences to and from the theatre safely and easily. The team is also connecting with the local queer community. “It should be a good bunch of people coming to watch it and a really good night out,” Josephine says.

“It’s so thrilling for me to have a cast of predominantly queer and trans actors who are really enjoying their sexuality and really exploring what it means to live in a human body and to move it in a way that really feels good,” they add.

This, plus many of the cast being from working-class backgrounds, makes Cowbois a far cry from Brokeback Mountain (2005), the most famous film of this genre, in which Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play two male cowboy lovers. While the film broke ground in bringing gay stories to the mainstream, the protagonists were played by straight men and their sexuality was a source of shame and doom.

“I think it’s absolutely vital to work with queer and trans actors when we have queer and trans parts,” Joesphine says. “We were very clear from the beginning that we wanted actors who had lived experience that was relevant to the characters. It makes it much richer.”

Josephine’s queer Western is a romp: a show created to be enjoyed by audiences rather than to educate them. “The beautiful thing that Charlie has done is created something that is quietly revolutionary,” Holmes says. “It works for all sorts of audiences and has such an extraordinary cast and creative team – we’re really excited for Cowbois to meet an audience.”

Cowbois is on now at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 18 November, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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