Nicholas de Jongh’s play Plague Over England harks back, of course, with some discomfort and poignancy, to a different era of gay life when homosexuality was not only illegal but gay men were routinely subjected to what amounted to a witch-hunt. We may assume that we’ve come a long way from then - and Claudia Pritchard, reviewing the play for the Independent on Sunday yesterday, suggests that “as the play leaps abruptly to a more enlightened age…the implication that everything is all right now is oddly parochial - homosexuality is still illegal in 80 countries, and many victims of persecution flee, scared and scarred, to Britain”. It’s in fact her own review that is oddly parochial: she calls it a pleasing evening, partly thanks to the fact she states in the next sentence that “For the first time in 40 years at the theatre I didn’t have to queue for the Ladies”.
We’re not told why - could it simply be because the audience was so thin the night she went, or because so few women were in the audience? I’m not sure it’s a recommendation of the play, though. Even more disturbing, however, was another of the Sunday reviews yesterday, that shows we may not have come very far at all in terms of attitude and prejudice.
Christopher Hart, writing in the Sunday Times, tells us more about himself than the play when he writes, “There’s also quite a lot of men kissing. I can cope with most things on stage — rape, torture, the plays of David Hare — but I still have to lower my gaze at men kissing.” So men kissing actually upsets him more than rape and torture? “Clearly,” he adds, “I need to send myself off on a diversity-awareness weekend.”
Well, at least he knows it. But it’s amazing to think that such prejudice can be so blatantly exhibited in the pages of an apparently respected and respectable Sunday paper. This, though, isn’t the first time that Mr Hart has shown himself distressingly at odds with modern opinion: in a review of the 2006 revival of Bent, he actually went so far as to suggest that gay men in Nazi Germany had brought their persecution upon themselves, as I blogged about at the time here.
The Sunday morning that Hart’s review of Bent appeared, the show’s producer Sonia Friedman called me that to express her outrage; and yesterday I received an open letter from Chantelle Staynings, the young producer of the play during its original Finborough run, which pointed out, “We performed this play, with actually only one major scene involving men kissing, in the tiny 50-seat Finborough Theatre and received not a single complaint. Clearly the play’s message is still needed today.”
Yes, it is. And it is clearly as necessary amongst the critical fraternity as it is amongst the public at large: I was astonished a few weeks ago to find Tim Walker, writing about Be Near Me at the Donmar Warehouse, that “It is striking how many of the productions I have reviewed over the years have touched on the subject of homosexuality. I would like to be able to say that it could always be justified on artistic grounds and that it has resulted in valid things being said, but, alas, I cannot. Rather, it seems to be that certain writers, apparently stuck in a 1950s mindset, regard it as a kind of shock effect, like a sudden bolt of thunder or a spot of full-frontal nudity, which they hope will wake up audiences that are otherwise in danger of dozing off.”
The assumption that homosexuality is somehow both a shock tactic but otherwise off-bounds for theatrical exploration is as shocking as it is surprising. It is as preposterous as to remark, “It is striking how many of the productions I have reviewed over the years have touched on the subject of heterosexuality.” Clearly some critics are as stuck in a 1950s mindset as they accuse certain writers of; and its equally intriguing how one critic who has chosen to dramatise that period is now finding another of his colleagues having to avert his eyes simply because of an onstage kiss. Could they simply be protesting too loudly, and actually showing rather too much interest in the subject than wishing it wasn’t being shown at all?
At least the theatre is fuelling debate. The debate around England People Very Nice took to the streets on Friday evening, when a public protest was held outside the National Theatre. But in fact one of the main agitators against the play, Hussain Ismail, had already scored his own goal with the hilarious statement, reported in The Independent, that “it creates new stereotypes about Bangladeshis that I have never heard, that we marry our cousins which is complete rubbish. That is the Pakistanis.”
As David Lister drolly put it in his weekly arts column in Saturday’s Independent, “No cultural stereotyping there, then.”