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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Sherman’

American playwright Martin Sherman rose to fame with the play Bent, about the treatment of homosexuals in the holocaust, which starred Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere on Broadway, then became a major film. He settled in London, where he had five high profile premieres over fifteen years in the 80’s and 90’s, attracting actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Olympia Dukakis to star in them, but he hasn’t been particularly prolific. It’s taken ten years since Onassis to get this new play, though in all fairness he is now 80!

It’s a reflection on the changes that have impacted the gay community over the years, told through the life of Beau, an American cocktail pianist who’s moved from New Orleans to San Fransisco and Paris, settling in London. In a series of monologues, we learn about the changes in gay life through his life, over forty or fifty years. These are interspersed with contemporary scenes, over another twelve years, from when he meets his much younger partner Rufus to when Rufus has left for a new life with his new younger partner Harry and Beau becomes a father, and grandfather, figure.

It’s a warm, gentle, understated piece, even when its reflecting on tough, challenging times. Rufus is somewhat conservative and loves all things retro, including his lovers it seems, so we get references to films and music from the middle of the 20th century when Beau’s career was in full swing but Rufus wasn’t even born. In particular, we hear about a British singer called Mabel Mercer, apparently a real life character, who’s career took her in the opposite direction to Beau, to cocktail bars in NYC, where Beau played for her.

Jonathan Hyde is excellent as Beau, with fine support from Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey. Sean Mathias’ sympathetic staging brings you slowly into these lives. It perhaps lacks some bite, but it tells its story well and really does make you realise how much things have changed in a relatively short time.

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I can hardly believe that it’s 30 years since the onset of AIDS. This was the first play to cover the events and issues of the time. However anchored in the period it was written or represents, if a play is good enough it will survive the test of time to speak to future audiences and so it is with As Is, which Arion Productions have brought from the Finborough to the West End.

The personal story of writer Rich provides the core of the play. He’s a New York City gay man, a writer, who’s partner Saul is a Jewish photographer. He cheats on him with his best friend Lily’s younger brother Chet and soon after is diagnosed with HIV. Saul remains loyal to Rich and cares for him throughout his decline in health. The play is so much more than this personal story though.

All of the issues the disease raised are interwoven in a series of masterly ensemble scenes. The first covers the attitudes, mostly uninformed and ignorant, to the ‘gay plague’ as it was labelled at the time and it shocks you. The gay scene and its rampant promiscuity is represented, we visit a group therapy session and there is a positively hysterical scene involving two men running a helpline. The scenes in the hospices are particularly moving. The play packs a lot into 80 minutes. Given the subject matter, you might be surprised to learn that it’s entertaining and often very funny.

The key to this revival’s success is a faultless cast led by Steven Webb as Rich and David Poynor as Saul. The other six actors (Natalie Burt, Bevan Celestine, Giles Cooper, Dino Fetscher, Jane Lowe and Russell Morton) play multiple roles, more than thirty in total. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer ensemble. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design, with spot-on period costumes by Philippa Batt, excellent lighting by Neill Brinkworth and atmospheric music by Matthew Strachan, allows speedy movement from scene to scene. Andrew Keates direction in this intimate space has great pace and engages the audience throughout, helped by using the whole space and a small amount of highly effective direct audience contact.

Please don’t think a play on this subject must be earnest and dull because its far from it – it’s as much entertainment as it is storytelling. This West End run includes a whole host of ‘extras’ – post-show talks and Q&A’s, free HIV testing and people can write in remembrance on the theatre walls themselves. In a West End theatre. Brilliant! Though unplanned, I was lucky enough to be there on the evening playwright Martin Sherman no less joined the director and a couple of cast members after the show; a real bonus.

I can’t compare this revival with the original London production I saw all those years ago – my memory isn’t that good! – but it’s a must-see revival of an important play. Above all though, you should go because it’s bloody good theatre!

 

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I didn’t read the reviews, but you’d have to be a hermit not to see the stars in passing, so my expectations weren’t exactly high.

The events of the play took place at a time where I was just about conscious of them as news items, but too young to be particularly interested. I haven’t subsequently read much about Onassis, so I have no reason to believe everything in Martin Sherman’s play (and Peter Evans book on which it is based) isn’t true.

The problem is, two hours of conspiracy theories, bullying, tales of sexual conquests and gossip about others’ sex lives is a bit relentless and makes you feel you’ve been beaten into submission and ready to accept that he was a power-crazed egocentric megalomaniac philanderer. So?

It might be true, but it still seems implausible and the result is heavy-handed and completely lacking in subtlety, objectivity and balance. The only interesting new fact / explanation I’ve taken away from it is his early life in Smyrna and it’s contribution in forming him.

I liked the idea of the Greek chorus and the use of Greek music and dance and Katrina Lindsay’s design is very good indeed. There’s nothing wrong with any of the supporting performances, but with such a larger-than-life main character, it’s hard for anyone to shine. I was expecting something very special from Robert Lindsay, but maybe he’s become disheartened after the reviews, but I found him good but not great – nothing like the passion he normally invests in his performances. At the curtain call, his facial expression seemed to suggest this and his gestures to the stage manager that there was to be no second curtain call as he walked off seemed to confirm it – but maybe after two hours of conspiracy theories, I was now inventing my own!

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