One love, two very different lives, divided by time. Nope, it’s not Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah consciously coupling in Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors, but rather a new staging of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Olivier Award-winning queer play The Pride.
Presented by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the Eternity Playhouse this month as part of this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, The Pride is a provocative non-linear piece exploring the relationship between the same two men across very different time periods.
In 1958, closeted real estate agent Phillip, played by Simon London, hides the truth from wife Sylvia (Geraldine Hakewill) while dancing discreetly around the mutual attraction between himself and Matt Minto’s young writer Oliver. This thread is intercut with a contemporary story that recasts Phillip as the stressed-out partner of an Oliver obsessed with accruing as many sexual partners as possible, whilst also confiding his own concerns to best friend Sylvia.
Sydney-based director Shane Bosher - an import from New Zealand where he was artistic director of Auckland’s Silo Theatre - was drawn to The Pride’s emotional complexity, thrilled by the dramatic friction created as these two disparate timelines rub up against each other. He brought a similarly challenging piece to last year’s Mardi Gras festival in Mike Bartlett’s celebrated Cock.
“The Pride and Cock came out around the same time, both with necessary conversations about where sexuality was at now,” Bosher said.
“Alexi looks at three people on either side of the sexual revolution and who those people would be as a result of societal repression, or not. It asks the question, ‘does it get better?’ Those freedoms that we’ve been offered actually throw up a whole lot of other difficulties.”
Drawing a compelling portrait of how societal repression has metamorphosed into a different kind of self-repression, Bosher says The Pride instigates, but does not corral, conversation.
“One of the great thing about the play is that you kind of walk away asking all of these questions and really interrogating what you think about where we’re at now.”
Language plays a vital role in Oliver and Phillip’s halting advances in the ‘50s-set segments, as they speak in subtle inference.
“They kind of test each other through insinuations about the theatre and walking in the park, ‘have I possibly met you on the underground before?’ It has this other, sub-textual life to it that if the other person picks up on, you can then pursue, but otherwise it’s just polite conversation.”
Often the female perspective can be obscured in this type of scenario, but not so in Campbell’s play, Bosher says, with Hakewill’s Sylvia subverting expectations.
"So often the woman in the picture is kind of shoved into the role of the wronged wife. Here you experience her journey as much as you do the men."
“All three of them, actually, are trying to find a new language together. So often the woman in the picture is kind of shoved into the role of the wronged wife. Here you experience her journey as much as you do the men. In a way she’s the one that drives them together; she offers extraordinary compassion.”
Neither is the play morally condescending towards contemporary Oliver’s needs, all the while exploring the complexities of a relationship that’s only really open one way.
“I don’t think Oliver’s being dishonest about who he is, but over time it’s kind of mutated to the point where his sex life has grown darker and darker and formed into an addiction which actually disables him from connecting authentically. We’re kind of consumed with this culture of consumption where straight acting is the benchmark, abdominals are all and disposable sex is available to us with the swipe of a thumb.”
Sylvia challenges Oliver to think about what he’s getting from his sexual transactions.
“She’s the best mate who offers sage advice, provocation and clarity for Oliver whilst he’s in this maelstrom of confusion.” Bosher said.
“Maybe you don’t need to curb the promiscuous sex, maybe you just need to understand it.
“Phillip worries if he’s a prude, or repressed, because that’s what gay men do, they like sex: ‘Am I the person in the wrong here?’ He loves Oliver intensely, but with Oliver distracting himself with all of this sex, he doesn’t feel that he is with him. Oliver’s opinion is that he loves Phillip intensely, but it’s a need he has to fill.”
Having previously staged such iconic texts as Angels in America and Holding the Man, Bosher has thrived on relaying stories that deepen his own understanding of our shared queer history. He’s thrilled that The Pride has a Mardi Gras stable mate in G.bod Theatre’s lesbian classic The Killing of Sister George, arguing that such programming shows the strength of the festival’s artistic output.
“That is unexpected and delicious. I don’t think that would happen at any other time of the year.”