Handel’s Cross

This post was contributed by Dr Fintan Walsh, lecturer in theatre and performance studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Enghlish and Humanities.

Thursday night saw a production of Handel’s Cross take place in the recently launched G10 performance space in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Directed and performed by Birkbeck lecturer Andrew McKinnon, and written and also performed by Martin Lewton (his partner in Theatre North), Handel’s Cross stages one man’s recurring sexual fantasy involving the 18th-century composer.

The performance begins with Lewton removing his clothes and being bound to a St. Andrew’s cross by McKinnon. He directly addresses the audience, sharing a story which takes us back to 1751, on the night of the premier of the then 66-year-old Handel’s cantata ‘The Choice of Hercules.’  The leading role is performed by renowned 22-year-old castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

Few details are known about Handel’s personal and especially sexual life.  Historians tend to agree that he was over-weight and even greedy, as mocked in Joseph Goupy’s caricature that features a grotesque pig’s snout (see right). Lewton takes the ambiguity surrounding Handel’s imitate life, and the notion (based on his rousing music) that he must have been a passionate man, to imagine a relationship between Guadagni and the composer, and to imagine himself as a subject of his brutish desires.

As Lewton speaks from the cross, acting as a kind of Handel substitute, McKinnon steps in at various points to attach nipple clamps, spray his chest with hot wax, and whip his body. With Handel’s music intermittently flooding the space, the S&M scenario combines with historical fantasy to powerfully suggest a link between artistic pain, Christian suffering, and homoerotic desire.

‘What are the attractions of fantasy in a world where bodies are bombarded and oppressed?’ Lewton asks towards the end of his 45-minute performance. It’s not a question he answers, but it’s one that lingers after his dismount.


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