Vicious and Vulgar: A New Sherlock Play
By: Leah Zoller
*Contains minor spoilers for Vicious and Vulgar; links contain spoilers for season 3 of BBC Sherlock.
BBC Sherlock recently announced the filming dates for its fourth season, with a Christmas special to be filmed in January 2015. The long hiatuses are both a curse and a blessing that in some ways defines the fandom: we have another two years of theories, meta, and fanwork to enjoy–as well as two years of worrying about queerbaiting and about whether Moffat and Gatiss are playing a long game with the character development. What I’ve learned from the fandom, though, is that fanworks are not just a hiatus-time pursuit but have the power to transform the narrative. With this, I’d like to introduce Vicious and Vulgar, a play for fans by fans that celebrates not just these iconic characters but the largely female-driven fandom.
Vicious and Vulgar started as a Kickstarter campaign and debuted at Sherlock Seattle 2013. The narrator is the cantankerous ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle (Andy Davison), the author of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s hatred of his most beloved character is quite famous, and his ghost is restless because the fans will not let Sherlock go. (He gets BBC2 in the afterlife, after all.) So he decides to tell the fans a story that will make them hate Watson and Holmes as much as he does:
I want you to see them young. I want you to see these two persons painfully, insufferably, foolishly young. All of us suffer the folly of youth, but before Watson and Holmes could meet, I like to imagine they went through life lost, misguided. And because I want you to understand their core, what it is about these characters that made them so tedious for me, I want you to see them young and naive.
In Conan Doyle’s new story, the role of John Watson is filled by Jane (Sammy Scott), an aimless college student who can’t choose a major. Jane is also a huge fan of the Holmes canon, from the original stories to BBC Sherlock; she is visited in her dreams by “Granada” (Ben Stahl), a classic Holmes based on Jeremy Brett’s depiction of Holmes in the Granada Television series, and Basil of Baker Street from The Great Mouse Detective. She is also a fanfiction writer, and her Johnlock fic “Vicious/Vulgar” is a hit on Archive of Our Own (AO3). Jane’s prior roommate has moved out suddenly, and, knowing that she wants a companion who will accept her nerdy pursuits, Jane posts a Craiglist ad full of Sherlock references in hopes that anyone who replies back with a reference will be the perfect roommate:
A Scandal in Ballard! (1 bdrm in 2 bdrm house, $800 per tenant)
Great Gloria Scott, it’s a sublet! This Empty House is looking for an Illustrious Client — not any woman, but THE woman!
I am a young student and passionate hobbyist (but not your housekeeper!) searching for a genius flatmate to assist in adventures and bartitsu spars.
This radical apartment is as stunning as the van Buren supernova, with basic cable AND on-site laundry. Covered bike storage will ensure that your belongings won’t go the way of the blue carbuncle, and our heating system is cost-efficient and snake-free!
Females only for applicants, we don’t need any Dancing Men. No hounds either! Must also be okay with cats.
Tenant pays gas/electric on 1-year lease. Must be tidy and OK with crap telly.
Charlotte Sigerson (Alison Luhrs), our Sherlock, responds with an email about preferring to text and needing to know about the specifications of the water heater, shows up in a “dramatic coat” with all her worldly possessions–and she has no idea who this “Sherlock Holmes” whom Jane is constantly referencing is.
The play deals with not just the Watson and Holmes relationship but also with the often disdainful treatment of fan creations by the showrunners as well as the mainstream media. Jane, trying to explain fanfiction to Charlotte, says,
Fanfiction gives me a safe place to explore, and…I don’t know, encourages discussing our–our roles in society, and-and picking them apart for every detail and nuance. Gender and power are so– amorphous. Women don’t get to fight. Women don’t get to fix things, make situations right. And because we don’t get to do that when I write about men, I’m not writing about men, I’m writing about people. I want to read stories without that shit predetermined in our minds. I want to fight, I want to fix things, I want to live without thinking about what women can and cannot do. Fanfiction allows that. It’s just people kicking ass.
Although Jane’s fanfiction focuses on BBC Sherlock and John and although she identifies with Watson and wants to be like him, the fact that she and Charlotte are genderswapped versions of the characters adds another layer to her above commentary. “Femlock” and other Rule 63 versions of popular characters illustrate a way to create new narratives about media and alter the way we write and think about women characters; to get away from strong female characters and create fully realized women characters, flaws and all.
For instance, Conan Doyle states of his creation of Sherlock and Charlotte, “You were cold. You were proud, distant, an icy unrelatable loner… I wrote you as a hero who was also a dick.” Charlotte and Jane’s gender doesn’t predetermine their characterization. They are not Ms. Male Characters but possibilities for new ways thinking about and writing characters who are not cismen. Jane and Charlotte’s relationship, despite Conan Doyle’s best efforts, proves to be as compelling as Holmes and Watson’s dynamic, especially because they’re a bit rough around the edges. Like the detective and the doctor, they challenge each other’s beliefs and bring out the good in each other.
Moreover, the play focuses on women in the fandom, their creations, and their love for and criticism of media featuring these two iconic characters. At a time when fanfiction and fanart is shown to actors and showrunners without permission at events in order to ridicule the fans (I’m looking at you, Caitlin Moran), having a meta work in which we see the characters interacting with versions of themselves highlights not just what Holmes and Watson mean to Jane but what they mean to other fans and how we see ourselves in the characters in our favorite works. And at a time when Moffat dismisses women fans and their creations while simultaneously producing his own Sherlock AU, the play reminds us that no one person–not even Arthur Conan Doyle–owns Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.
My only complaint with the video is the sound balance of the video, which is certainly no fault of the production–those of us in the audience who were laughing uproariously and frequently.
Scott and Luhrs are in interested in taking this show on the road, and hopefully the Seattle side of the fanbase will see them again soon. Many happy returns for the play and its creators!
VICIOUS AND VULGAR
By Sammy Scott and Alison Luhrs
Sammy Scott – Jane
Alison Luhrs – Charlotte
Andy Davison – ACD
Ben Stahl – Sherlock
ORIGINAL DESIGN TEAM
Kyle Levien, Sound
Bill Woodland, Lights
Kelsey Bujacich, Makeup/ Hair/ Costumes
Debuted on October 4, 2013, at Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle
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*Images by Shawn Baker.
Guest contributor Leah Zoller writes The Lobster Dance, a blog about gender and Japan, and I’ll Make It Myself!, a blog about food, geekery, and gender. She enjoys nearly all versions of Sherlock Holmes, especially Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and hopes that there will be more Femlock in her future.