By Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by Silo Theatre
Herald Theatre, Auckland | August 9-September 1
I need to open this review by saying that I’m a fan of Silo Theatre. An unashamedly huge fan. I think they’re doing great work within the Auckland theatre scene, bringing exciting new international works to a local audience, and reviving underperformed classics in fresh, risk-taking productions. These productions are also visually and aurally exciting, pushing the boundaries of what theatre can do while still being appealing and accessible to an audience. It’s why I’m pained to say that, although I have the utmost respect and admiration for everybody involved in The Pride, I also have a bundle of issues with the script, written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, that mars my enjoyment of what is otherwise an excellent production.
The Pride is split into two parts, 1958 and 2008, with each having three main characters, two men and one women (with the occasional extra male to throw a spanner in the works), and the play quite effortlessly switches between the two periods while keeping a handle on where we are in time with every scene. All four actors in the play also do double-duty, playing characters in both time periods, which gives the two an almost poignant link.
In 1958, we follow Philip (Simon London) a real estate man who is married to Sylvia (Dena Kennedy), an actress-turned-children’s-book-illustrator who has recently been employed by Oliver (Kip Chapman), a travel writer-turned-children’s author who is also a semi-closeted homosexual. It’s clear early on that Philip is gay, and the attraction between him and Oliver, as well as Philip’s clear devotion to his wife, is palpable. This section of the play deals more with Philip’s self-repression and his unwillingness to accept his own sexuality, which leads to explosive and implosive results.
Meanwhile, in 2008, Oliver (Kip Chapman) is a journalist who has jeopardized his relationship with Philip (Simon London) by having anonymous sex in parks, something he calls an addiction. Philip leaves Oliver, and Oliver is left in the arms of their supportive straight woman friend Sylvia (Dena Kennedy) to recover and try to grow as a person. In a reversal of the 1958 storyline, this one focuses less on repression and more about a gay man accepting his own place in society, and how to function in a way that is acceptable to those around him.
The acting in the production is brilliant, and the actors have melded themselves into the very specific dialogue style that the play has, and also the two time periods without any flaws or deficiencies. Simon London has an awkwardness and earnestness that is heartbreaking; it almost seems like a cover to 1958 Philip’s refusal to acknowledge his own sexuality, and his switch to 2008 Philip’s more downtrodden pragmatism is no less affecting. Kip Chapman gets to play the more flamboyant 2008 Oliver and gets to land some pretty nice zingers, but he also plays the 1958 Oliver with a wistful self-knowledge and acceptance of his lot in life, and the development from that to wanting something more.
Dena Kennedy is a true highlight for me; her face is like a beam of sunshine, illuminating the set, and her voice is almost musical, handling the upper class British accent very well. Her Sylvias are much more different than the other characters—one a troubled wife determined not to be so, and the other a sometimes reluctant-tag-along—and she makes the somewhat rote roles come completely alive. Sam Snedden plays three roles throughout the show, all of them key. Two of them are comic high points—an eccentrically voiced rentboy and a hotshot magazine editor—and the third, as a sex aversion therapist, is one of the most chilling and effective moments in the show. He plays all three brilliantly, with great comic timing and crisp line readings, and gives the play a necessary link to the outside world.
Which brings me to the script. I’ve had trouble trying to articulate with myself just what my problems with the script are, or why it left me so utterly cold and almost mad. After wrestling for a good while with it, I think my problem is that the script seems like it comes from another era of theatre. This never came off to me like a renowned award-winning play from 2008, let alone 2012; it came off like a McNally play sitting squarely in the early-90s or late-80s, with the same rote, well-worn gay fiction stereotypes spouting crackling, overly articulate, zingy dialogue. It’s very clear that this is the work of a clever writer who knows play structure, scene structure, dialogue, but too often it seemed like the characters were talking about things rather than just talking or even doing things. They seemed like mouthpieces, albeit very well performed and written mouthpieces, for what the writer wanted to convey. There’s an uplifting, incisive and intelligent message about gay pride, and what the nature of pride is to not only a group, but to an individual, but it’s far too didactically delivered, to the point where it’s like watching an essay rather than watching real people in real situations.
It’s possible that I’m just the wrong generation of gay to appreciate this play and what it does. It’s alarming to me that as a collective, we’re still using the trope of the rent boy in fiction, still using the flamboyant, witty gay character who is emotionally unavailable, and most alarmingly, still using female characters as foils and bystanders, not characters with their own arcs and emotional stakes. The 2008 Sylvia in particular is defined entirely by the men in her life, in a way that seems dated and even offensive. I’m sure there are many, many gay men like the 2008 Oliver in the world today, but the character hews far too close to stereotype for me to accept him as a living, breathing person. It’s a story, and a character I’ve seen throughout gay fiction, theatre and film alike, and I’m just sure it’s not one that needed to be reiterated.
The response to this play has been great all over the world, so I’m totally allowing for the possibility that my response is mine alone, but it already seems like a relic of history, not a new, current exciting play. I am honestly waiting for the day where plays about gay people can move past our sexuality as a theme or defining concept, and just allow gay characters to simply be gay characters. I think that’s what I went into The Pride expecting, and it just didn’t meet my perhaps unrealistic expectations.
In saying all this, the script does have effective moments. The first act closer is ripe with subtext, power, violence, and brutality in a way that sums up an entire generation’s self-loathing and confusion in one action, and the scenes towards the beginning of the second act are affecting and reached out to me in a way that the rest of the play didn’t. I just wish that the play rested in this place of action, rather than a place of talking about things, concepts, and feelings.
Credit must go to director Sophie Roberts for the stunning production. The transitions between scenes are graceful and establish the links between the two sets of characters without making it awkward or ham-fisted, and the set design is fantastic. There are two layers of what, from my seat, looked to be mirrors that waved back and forth, occasionally looking like windows. They reflected both the lights and the actors, and gave the play some real physical depth and even weight to it, it seemed like there was a whole other world behind these mirrors, that we weren’t seeing or that was hidden from us. Credit to the always inventive John Verryt for that, and also credit to Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes, which define the characters immediately as they walk on stage, from the buttoned-down 1958 Philip, to the once-twinkish 2008 Oliver.
It’s a genuinely stirring production of a script that I really wish was a whole lot better, or at least more current. It’s clear that Silo cares a lot about The Pride, as they should; it’s a noble play with a lot of feeling and intent behind it, and it throws a light on gay identity that maybe audiences in this country need to be aware of. Again, immense credit to the cast, the production team and Roberts for making this a palatable production; I just wish the script was able to make it a truly great production.