Only two days now until the premiere of The Quest, a play I’ve written that parts mythic, part modern and follows the stories of Zemuel and Fred, both yearning to find home in an oft hostile world. It’s being put on as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Creative Disruption festival, which celebrates its many community theatre groups, including the Queer Collective, of which I am a part. Since January an ace group of queers have been tirelessly bringing the script to life with movement, voice, body and even sticks. The result is already beautiful and I can’t wait to see it on stage. You can too, get your tickets here!
Inspired originally by Matthew Todd’s great book, Straight Jacket, which outlines a number of problems the gay, male community is suffering from and how to face them. Whilst I was reading it I went off for an adventurous week in a rewilding Welsh valley. It was all very Legend of Zelda and whilst the people there with me were fabulous there was not much space for queerness. So the Queer Warrior character came to life to challenge this as well as the repetitive plot of the Zelda games – a young dude going off to rescue a Princess from a big monster, yawn. I wanted to be able to imagine an inherently queer fantastical world, one in which all LGBT+ folks can experience wholesome rites of passage as they step deeper into their identities. However, while I think it’s very important to be able to imagine these things I also know that I don’t live in such a world. All the problems outlined in Straight Jacket continue to exist, which is why The Quest is also set in London where shit happens and the characters have to deal with it.
So does the quest for queer happiness have a destination? I think so. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a place. I think it’s a state of mind and being that is hugely dependent on the places in which one finds oneself. For me it’s about cultivating self-love, pride and resilience in the face of self-loathing, shame and prejudice. It’s tough and all over the world LGBT+ folk are being persecuted simply for wanting to be themselves. Queertopia remains a distant dream but I still think it’s worth imagining these brilliant places where queer folk are happy and well nurtured whilst recognising the challenges we face in getting there. I do hope you’ll join us on The Quest.
In an age of so-called self-made-men and hyper-individualism it seems we’re destined to go it alone and build ourselves from scratch. This, of course, is just one of many bullshit lies fed to us by an economic-political system that thrives when we’re unhappy and buying more crap. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy but it’s kinda true that miserable folk make for better consumers and what better way to make people miserable than make them feel alone. Certainly, loneliness has long been a friend of mine, and something it has taken me years to change my relationship with. Now, periods of loneliness, while still making me sad, do not necessarily have to dunk me into depression. Yet under the loneliness I’ve recently found something else: longing. The longing to belong and to be part of something, namely, a tribe. And it was during a snowy week in February that I found a place that felt like home – the Arcola’s Queer Collective.
In its own words, “a performance collective exploring queer identity and how to present it theatrically…the group is open to anyone identifying as LGBTQI*.” Theatre and queerness, what’s not to love! However, what surprised me in between rehearsals of my play The Cluedo Club Killings – think a queered Miss Marple meets Skins with farce – was the depth of my longing. As someone who has striven hard to find community, be it in valleys in rural Wales, at Buddhist retreats in Scotland and occasionally on the dance floor (and often found these places to be distinctly unqueer), reaching my longed for destination proved both heartblowing and heartbreaking. Suffice to say, at the after party, a lot of tears were shed.
I think I cried for many reasons: because the weather was so damn awful; because a show we had so much fun making was now over; because I had been able to fully express my queer self through a piece of theatre; because I fell over on the ice (it really hurt, particularly my pride, but that’s another post); and because that journey to find community had been such a long one. From the corridors of boarding school to the Arcola stage, my longing ran deep, and it was only when I found the Queer Collective and the wondrous people who make it, did I begin to grasp those depths. All those tears for all those years of longing. Yet having found a destination I can finally put faces, places and names to my longing. I know what’s possible now, a privilege my 10 year-old self was never allowed. Nevertheless, thanks to the Queer Collective I believe 10 year-old someone elses and queer folks of all ages for that matter have something tangible and inspirational to look to. Long may it continue.
“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.
Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!
Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.
Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is an epic play. It’s epic in length: together Parts 1 and 2 come to some eight hours of stage time. It’s epic in theme: it combines the AIDS crisis with Reaganite politics with tales of migration with unrest in heaven. It’s epic in presentation: angels descend from the skies, burning books rise through the floors and ghosts prance about on stage. It’s so epic in fact that I think it counts as a modern-day myth – it hones in so painfully close on the intimate details of the characters’ unhappy lives that we end up passing through their blood cells only to see stars. Not to mention its exploration of the history of the Jewish people in America, the impacts of the religion of neoliberal capitalism a la Reagan and the pain of being homosexual in a straight man’s world. Not forgetting the ghosts, heavenly hosts and valium-induced trips to Antarctica either! That really is epic.
I saw Part 1 at London’s National Theatre last night. It comes in three sections (we had two intervals!) and I’d say the first third is pretty tepid as the odd set of giant Lego-like structures jars with the up-close introduction to the protagonists. The second third gets a little warmer as the actors get into role (and I stopped comparing it with the epic HBO series which had Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, tough to beat), even if they did rely a little too much on shouting at other. It’s the third third that blew me away as the seams of reality start to unravel, the Lego bricks get pushed backstage and the sh*t hits the fan. This is when the epic got epic.
Set in 1985 and written in 1993 Angels In America is, in many ways, a period piece but one that still resonates today. It explores the early years of a politico-economic order that we have inherited and isn’t doing well. As one character tells us towards the end of Part 1, “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.” So we’re living on the other side of Millennium and very much plunging into the crack, and not the sort of crack you might plunge into on a night stroll through Central Park. Whilst some of the characters appear to be cliché, for example, Belize the sassy, black drag queen (who only gets to steal one scene in Part 1 but will come back with a vengeance in Part 2), I think kudos is due to playwright Tony Kushner for inventing these clichés before they were clichés. However, I think both these concerns are reminders that we need more gay fantasias, lots more. Queer ones too and lesbian and trans and asexual and intersex and as multi-coloured as possible. We also need plays to remind us that today many people live with HIV and live very happily. Of course, many do not and the medication is still not widely available and there is just far too much stigma, as Angels aptly demonstrates. And that’s the thing about myths, while they are embedded in a certain time and place, say, Ancient Rome, a galaxy far, far away or 1980s New York, and focus on certain people’s lives they have the ability to transcend all this and echo throughout the ages. They appear universal because they tap deep into the human condition, a condition that might regularly change its clothes but still beats the same, dark blood. We might learn our lessons one day but in the mean time we can dance with those angels in America (bring on Part 2).
Beneath Waterloo station lie the vaults. They are long, cavernous rooms made of brick and stone. They are dank and smell a little of damp. They are also the site of Great Gatsby themed parties, plays about starships, masked balls and for only two more days – Still Waiting. As the blurb promised this is an event “about the hundred handshakes you experience in the Calais Refugee Camp, volountourism and packets of pasta, and our relationship with Europe’s refugee crisis.” And as the trains rumbled overhead so I was transported into a very different world. Actually, no, I wasn’t transported because Still Waiting is about this world and the problems it is facing. Perhaps, instead, rather than being taken away on an escapist adventure I was more deeply immersed in the real world. I was made to feel.
Three cast members/musicians took us through the refugee crisis via songs, statistics, jokes, laments and thoughtful interludes. The title comes from the name of a report released by Refugee Rights Data Project on the situation in Calais. It is the “largest research effort around refugees and displaced people in the region to-date” and it is called Still Waiting because so many people are doing just that, waiting and waiting for a chance to find a new home, to be reunited with family and friends, to escape the persecution of their homelands and/or for better education opportunities. And these are people who are waiting, not just photographs in a newspaper, or numbers on a spreadsheet, or stereotyped ‘masses’. They are people like us.
And that is what Still Waiting achieved – it turned the numbers into stories and the stories made me feel. Whether it was listening to the recording of Ramia’s story, a young woman who escaped Aleppo in Syria and is now living in Goumenissa in Greece. Or hearing the cast discuss their own experiences of going to (or not going to) Calais to help the refugees and the charities supporting them (they also sang a song about it called Humblebrag and it’s worth going to the show just for that!). The show costs £9 and in going you help fund Crew for Calais, one of the charities doing vital work to support refugees. Go also to be moved and to be drawn into a humanitarian crisis in a way that no broadsheet or head of government seems capable of doing. Go because this matters, it really does matter, and we are running out of excuses not to. Because the world won’t get better by itself, the world needs the cast of Still Waiting, it needs Crew for Calais and it needs the resilience and fortitude of the endless refugees forced to leave their homes.
The world needs us too and it’s events like this that remind me of that.
One a play at the Vaults Theatre in London about the lives of ten gay men, the other a Hollywood romance about a decidedly straight couple falling in love as they zoom through outer space. The former is a great piece of writing accompanied by some wonderful acting and the latter is actually surprisingly good given that it’s a romance at zero gravity. However, as I watched these productions I felt I had seen them before albeit in different locations: men f*cking in Manchester for example and straight couples falling in love, well, pretty much everywhere. And it was the way the scripts unfolded that disturbed me the most (spoilers).
F*king Men introduced us to a world of brief encounters between men in dark parks, closeted professionals worried their careers would collapse if they out themselves, put upon sex workers and porn stars, HIV stigma and homophobia. It was also a world full of laughter, love and heart as different individuals and couples tried to make it work in a world where guys just seem to want to f*ck all the time. Meanwhile, in Passengers there’s only room for two straight people as Chris Pratt and J-Law discover they’ve woken up ninety years before the spaceship has reached its destination. As it turns out Pratt woke up first, then, a year later, woke up J-Law. Obviously, when she finds out she’s pretty mad but she ends up forgiving him and (straight) love conquers all, it even fixes a hole in the spaceship caused by a tiny asteroid.
And it’s funny isn’t it that the scripts of gay men’s stories don’t always end quite so happily as those of straight lovers. Now, I know I’m comparing an Off-West End show with a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s hardly like with like, but I’m concerned that so many of the shows I see about gay men are bittersweet or sometimes just bitter. It’s like each time we have to go through all the homophobia, shame, prejudice and self-loathing before we can get to asking what might happen next. Whereas there are so many scripts for straight folk that they can do as they please and often get happy endings to boot. Passengers ends in engagement after all (which, I appreciate, doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness) whereas F*cking Men ends with a young sex worker being given extra pay with which he might just be able to afford the mortgage on a flat with a kitchen – but, unlike the hole in the ship, the shame, stigma and self-loathing haven’t gone away. So, dear LGBTQIA+ allies, it’s another call for help – please help us queer folk get happier endings (and not just of the orgasm variety), please help edit the societal scripts that force us into hiding and get us hurt, and please listen to and share our stories. Next year I want to see two lesbians stuck in outer space, or two trans men, or two intersex folk, and I don’t want that plea to sound like a joke because I’m not being funny. And if you’re not going to write the script then I will and in the meantime I’ll carry on enjoying F*cking Men – seriously, it’s great – get your tickets here. Trailer below most definitely NSFW.
It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.
Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.
I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.