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GAY HISTORY COMES TO LIFE

Theatre-wise the first decade of the 21st century was dominated by Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) set in a single sex school with two gay masters. The play was one of Bennett’s most popular and later became an equally successful film.

 It arrived at a time when many gay playwrights were turning to history for their inspiration. (LGBT History Month had begun in the US in 1994 and came to the UK in 2005). Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001) reminded us of the journey we’ve made from molly houses to gay bars and sex parties.

The musical Taboo (2002), with songs by Boy George, was set in the New Romantic era of the 1980s; for a while George played his friend Leigh Bowery. T.K. Light’s Liberace’s Suit (2004) was based on the gay pianist’s court case of the 1950s.

Martin Lewton’s Lord Arthur’s Bed (2008) revealed the story of Victorian transvestites Boulton and Park. 2009 brought Plague Over England, about the gay witch-hunts that followed World War II, and Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals, about the relationship between Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich, two of the founders of the first homophile group The Mattachine Society.

There were a couple of outstanding gay dramas. Richard Greenberg imagines the tragic consequences of a baseball player coming out as gay in Take Me Out (2003). Although it won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play, it’s never come to London.

Another tragedy, Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man (2006), is about a real-life gay couple, both of whom died of AIDS. This Australian play did reach London, in 2010, to unanimous acclaim.

Among other dramas were another two based on the 1897 classic La Ronde – Jack Heifner’s Seduction (2004) and Joe DiPietro’s Fucking Men (2008).

There were plenty of small-scale gay musicals but, as the economic situation worsened, few producers were willing to risk major investment.

Jonathan Harvey and Pet Shop Boys joined forces for Closer to Heaven (2001), loosely based on the trio’s experiences in the music industry and clubland.

Tim Acito’s Zanna, Don’t! (2003) is set in a parallel universe where heterosexuals are in the minority. But both shows paled into insignificance beside the decade’s big crossover success, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Opening in a theatre in Sydney in 2006, it’s now circled the globe and is in its third year at London’s 1,400 seat Palace Theatre. It’s a wow with straight coach parties because it mixes La Cage aux Folles with a vintage jukebox score. (Act I ends with “I Will Survive”.)

In a sense nothing’s changed since the Great Depression when the pansies came out to cheer up the impoverished masses.

“In a sense nothing’s changed since the Great Depression when the pansies came out to cheer up the impoverished masses.”

 

MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE FRINGE

The huge subsidies are long gone. But there is more gay theatre today than at any other time in history.

 

In London the oldest venue regularly programming LGBT shows is Oval House. The biggest is the Drill Hall. Others include the Soho Theatre, the Rosemary Branch, the ICA and the Finborough. On average a new LGBT play opens every week. But London can support only one full-time gay theatre, the tiny Above the Stag, which opened in 2008. We’ll look at the possible reasons in the final part of this series next week.

The 2000s saw the rise of a handful of people who went on to monopolise LGBT theatre in London. Duckie, led by Amy Lamé and Simon Casson, moved from cabaret to theatre in 2003 with spectacular success.

Their show C’est Barbican won an Olivier Award and the group has since staged several similar events. Writer-director Phil Willmott has been involved with many gay plays including Fucking Men, Blowing Whistles, The Master’s Boy, Liberace’s Suit and Naked Boys Singing

Another prolific writer-director, Rikki Beadle-Blair is a lifelong gay rights campaigner perhaps best known for Bashment (2005) and Fit (2007), both dealing with forms of homophobia.

Tim Fountain, who cast Bette Bourne as Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien (1999), later scandalised the right-wing press with his one man show Sex Addict (2004) in which he made contacts on Gaydar, had sex after the show, and then brought in the video evidence the following evening!

Fountain and Bourne were reunited on Rock (2008), about Rock Hudson’s relationship with his agent Henry Willson.

 

GREAT GAY PLAYS

The Laramie Project (2000)

The homophobic murder of student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, inspired this play by Moises Kaufman, which is still used in schools both in the US and the UK to teach children about tolerance. Along with other plays, films, books and songs about Shepard, it’s probably done more to raise awareness of hate crime than all the lecturing and preaching put together.

Plague Over England (2009)

Sold out at the Finborough, Nicholas de Jongh’s play about John Gielgud and other victims of 1950s homophobia, closed early at the Duchess. We’ll discuss why next week. It’s a well-written, informative piece about class prejudice that, remarkably, makes us understand why the establishment was so afraid of homosexuality. But it tries to cover too much ground. De Jongh’s latest gay play, There Goes My Future, was read at the Finborough in July.

 

A Brief Trans History

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