We Must Love One Another and/or Die

Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (1985) (Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, directed by Dominic Cooke)

[I wrote a different version of my thoughts here]

In 2017, the National Theatre revived the two-part, seven and a half hour long Angels in America by Tony Kushner, I think in the Olivier, an account of the early years of AIDS and combination treatments. The following year, the Young Vic mounted a premiere of Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance, a two-part, seven-hour play about a group of gay men across a number of years. Both are sprawling plays and – it has to be confessed – go on a bit. Russell T. Davies’s It’s a Sin (2021) told an equivalent British story, between 1981 and 1991, over five c. 45-minute episodes.

The onlie begetters of these plays are William M. Hoffman’s As If (1985) – which has been filmed – and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985). Kramer, a screenwriter and novelist, started Gay Men’s Health Crisis to warn gay New Yorkers that there was some kind of disease, probably spread by sex, that was killing increasing numbers of people and to offer support to those who were dying. Stopping having sex was not a message gay men wanted to hear and almost no one in authority wanted to help. Kramer changed the names of the people involved and dramatized his campaign.

I saw a production at Nottingham Playhouse in 1987 and I know it had a huge impact on me at the time. We’d had the don’t die of ignorance campaign, so by then AIDS had gained its name and HIV was being used as the name of the retrovirus; it would have been the era of Section 28 (or Clause 27, 28, 29…), forbidding the promotion of homosexuality. There might even have been some debate about whether it was suitable play for school children to see. I can’t remember who played the protagonist, Ned Kramer, but he’d been in other plays at the playhouse, and I largely remember the set of his apartment – and I suspect a New York skyline. I remember a lot of talk. Do I remember Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert being played between scenes?

I also remember a revival of Saturday Night Sunday Morning and overhearing an audience comment during the traumatic illegal abortion scene: “We had a bath like that.” Emotional engagement was trumped by nostalgia.

And it would have been easy for the National to go a well-made play route, fetishizing the fashion and furnishing of a rich, secular Jewish gay man, and show the chintz alluded to in the dialogue. The Olivier is a notoriously largely space to fill – which Angels used spectacle to occupy, along with sets rotating rising and lowering.

Fortunately, they avoided this: staging it a bit in the round (I wish I’d gone for a stage seat), a mainly circular space with a number of curved benches and a handful of telephones. I clocked the triangle shape on the circle before the start, and by the end of the play it had formed a pink triangle. As the play opens, a fire is lit, and this burns above the action for the rest of the play. Characters walk or are wheeled on through the audiences, sometimes announcing the date and location. Very Brechtian. Dropped props slowly fill the space, but never leaving it overcrowded.

So, this leaves the voice. It is a very speechy, preachy play. At its heart is Weeks’s (Ben Daniels)/Kramer’s message to stop having sex, the only reasonable response in the days before safer sex and combination therapies reduced the risks and prolonged lives. But this is little more than a decade after Stonewall and this felt like a demand to stop being gay. The lack of legal support meant it was safer for many people to stay in the closet – in many places even hotel rooms would be illegal to rent – and sex could be found in bathhouses, backrooms and public toilets. Kramer does allow characters to question Weeks’s views and he is eventually removed from GMHC (in real life I think Kramer resigned), but within the context of the play he is right. It is a third of the length of Angels, is less artistically ambitious, but you to be prepared to go along with the speechifying.

The only woman in play, Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr), a wheelchair user, is driver Weeks to action and fighting for medical funds. She had treated more AIDS patients than anyone else in the world. Whilst she has some fine acidic dialogue, she again is prone to the monologue. Perhaps the events were too raw, the message to urgent, to turn this into something more naturalistic.

And yet, there is real emotion in the play. We are made to feel horror and grief at young men dying before their time – although for the first half of the play this is more told than shown. Inevitably, HIV comes home, and it is devastating. But there are plenty of laughs, some at the expense of gay men, some at homophobia, some at specific characters. This earns the play its inevitable darkness.

When I first saw the play, there was no cure, no vaccine, little treatment. At some point around then, Ian McKellan came out on a Radio 3 arts programme (I can’t remember why I was listening – I think because I liked theatre, I think I had read his book on acting). This revival was planned as a mark of respect on Kramer’s death in 2020.

COVID scuppered that.

We have diagnosis techniques and mitigating medication. There is still no vaccine. Worldwide reaction to COVID has been patchy, but mostly swifter and more wide ranging than it was to HIV. Money has been thrown at the issue and it seems successfully. As in the early days of HIV there have been the conspiracy theories and the fake news, but the probable vector was identified much more quickly. In the meantime, HIV has spread through Africa and has infected women as well as men. It is great that this play has been revived – the reaction to It’s a Sin indicates that some generations have forgotten and other have never learned. But there are other stories to tell – not least the non-white and less middle-class experience of the epidemic.

Life is Not a Dream

Martin Sherman, Gently Down the Stream (directed by Sean Mathias, Park Theatre, Finsbury Park)

GentlyForty years ago, Martin Sherman wrote the play Bent, which in its original version starred Ian McKellen (before he publically came out) and Tom Bell and was set in 1930s Berlin as Hitler was strengthening his power. McKellen’s then partner, Sean Mathias, directed a revival and a film version – although I have I suspect a false memory of seeing it on TV. Now Mathias has directed Sherman’s new play, which ranges across the last eighty years. It debuted last year with Harvey Fierstein in the lead, a production I wish I’d seen, directed by Mathias.

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On Pointe

Girl (Lukas Dhont, 2018)

Trans issues are a hot button topic right now — not least because some feminists have an issue with people declaring themselves to be women and sounding in the process as if they have an essentialist view of women closer to the conservative side of the debate. A programme such as Woman’s Hour can have a presenter claiming that sportswomen will no longer succeed as suddenly a lot of male athletes will claim to be women. And a few years back there was a lot of controversy over the (problematic) The Danish Girl, since Eddie Redmayne was a cis actor. Were there any trans actors who could have played the role? Would the film have been funded with one?

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Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.
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Wired Worlds

This was commissioned for a project that seems to have vanished, but I needed to write a couple of sentences for a chapter on the topic… I thought this text would be on my harddrive, but it’s hiding if it is. Fortunately I rarely delete emails.

 

Welt am Draht (World on a Wire/World on Wires) (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 1973)

Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye, Counterfeit World/Simulacron-3 (1964)

(Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Sc. Fritz Müller-Scherz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Pr. Peter Märthesheimer and Alexander Wesemann; Cin. Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz; P.D. Horst Giese, Walter Koch and Kurt Raab; starring Klaus Löwitsch (Fred Stiller), Barbara Valentin (Gloria Fromm), Mascha Rabben (Eva Vollmer), Karl Heinz Vosgerau (Herbert Siskins), Wolfgang Schenck (Franz Hahn), Kurt Raab (Mark Holm)) Continue reading →

Put Your Hands on Your…

Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before – gay films tend to the gay gothic where one or more of the gay characters has to die at the end. For the ‘clean’ gay – the noble heroic one – he or see might be driven to suicide by despair or killed as a result of homophobic society, or succumbing to HIV related conditions; for the ‘unclean’ one – the villain – the sentence is to be killed by the hero, at best to be imprisoned. Even a recent, and reasonably delightful, film such as Love is Strange, kills off one of its leads rather than give us a happy ending.

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Cupid Stunt

eCupid (J.C. Calciano, 2011)

In one of those it’s my blessing and my curse moments, I keep realising 90% of the way through a film that I should have been taking notes because it is relevant to my Research Project.

Most of the time the film is pants.

Valerian, say.

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Underground, Overground

Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights (People’s History Museum, 25 February-3 September 2017)

I had a bit of a mooch around this, although I think that I spent an hour in here. It is an interesting example of history from below, curated by members of the Manchester LGBT+ community, which I suspect meant that things were selected that might otherwise have been missed. It also meant that there were overlaps between sections and probably gaps. There was probably more stuff from post 1968 than pre-1968, but it was good to see a copy of the Wolfenden Report. There were posters, badeges, photos, fanzines, newsletters, tickets and so on.

It was hard to navigate, although perhaps it made sense to have a section on protest and another on Queers of Color, even if Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners weren’t in the former section. There was a front page of a tabloid covering Sue Lawley’s experience of a protest on the Six O’Clock News but a photo of four of the five lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords. The context for this, Clause 28, is explained elsewhere with a copy of Jennie Lives with Eric and Martin, the book that triggered Tory homophobia.

I suspect the last thing that you are likely to see is a timeline, from 1533 or thereabouts, to the present day, noting significant moments in LGBT+ history and law. The temptation is to go round again, slotting everything into its rightful place, restoring the master narrative. Perhaps this needs to be avoided? Perhaps you can’t separate issues of ethnicity and suffragism out from each other, although the exhibition does. I think I would have placed this first, or on the way in.

For the third time this year, I saw some Claude Cahun photographs — in two parts of the exhibition — although this was clearer than the Sidney Copper Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery in suggesting Marcel Moore took them. Like the other two exhibitions, they insisted on naming them by birth name or deadnaming them. Did this need thinking through? Is it different from an artist going by a name other than their birth one?

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Meanwhile, upstairs in the main gallery you can see the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners banner. There’s also a group of photos covering the 1970s and 1980s music scene in Manchester, which overlapped with the queer communities. I overheard a group of young men discussing Queer as Folk and being nostalgic about its depiction of Manchester “even though I wasn’t there”.

I suddenly felt very old.