Four couples in search of a plotBy Sheridan Morley, The Spectator, February 13, 1999
Gay plays in Britain have had a curious history of what could be called an open closet; long before the abolition of state censorship in the 1960s, dramas like The Green Bay Tree (1933) and in the following year Noel Coward's Design for Living had unmistakably homosexual leading characters, while in the 1950s Tea and Sympathy played Paris and London long before venturing onto Broadway and then the screen.
Yet we have never had over here any real equivalent of the polemical writing of a Larry Kramer, or the poetic yearning of a Terrence McNally for a happy homosexual community devoid of Aids or mainstream prejudice. There has never been a real British grouping on stage of the boys in the band, and we seem to have skipped an entire theatrical generation, going straight from the coded double-meanings of Rattigan to the post-modern world of rough Scots trade or Jonathan Harvey's campy south London teenagers. Even in Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg, arguably the best gay play of the last decade in this country, Aids is something that happens offstage between acts.
All of which makes Certain Young Men, the play that Peter Gill has written and directed for the Almeida, fascinating in its own very chilly and minimalist way. Gill has always specialised in cross-sections of a community (witness his recent Cardiff East at the National, a latter day dramatic version of Under Milkwood with the techniques of drama-documentary replacing the Dylan Thomas poetry), and here again we have an ad hoc grouping of characters all in search of a plot which somehow Gill never quite manages to find.
His eight characters are neatly divided into four couples; all are gay, and all have to some extent destroyed their own happiness by an inability to come to terms with their own sexuality. Some are dangerously close to stereotypes: the bookish intellectual falling for a bit of rough, or the late developing gay still half in love with his ex-wife. But Gill's message is, when it finally flashes through to us, about as quietly revolutionary as it can get; Certain Young Men is in the end about the idea that there is no such thing as a gay community, that people who adore Calvin Klein or Judy Garland or Maria Callas might be just that, and not necessarily trying to crack a lifestyle code.
Gays, in crude synopsis of Gill's text, are just like everyone else except that they happen to be gay; they get together, separate, bicker, reconcile and in the end try to work out whether it is time to move on to other partners. These are the men who usually only find their voices in Sondheim songs, desperately trying to come alive and find someone to hold them too close, but also terminally confused and forever too eager to discover if there might be something better waiting for them in a new relationship. The problem is that Gill doesn't tell us enough about any of his men to make us really care what happens to them; we are given brisk background sketches, but these 17 brief duologues began as workshop exercises seven years ago and have never really graduated to full dramatic status. Whether it might have been better to give them some central connection, so that (as in Schnitzler's La Ronde before David Hare reduced it to The Blue Room) the characters are all passing some sexually transmitted disease to each other, or to bring them all face to face with each other, as at one of those McNally Fire Island beach weekends, we shall never know; Gill goes his own bleak way, mercilessly mocking the eccentricities of gay culture but also tacitly admitting that the alternative to coming out is staying in, and that can't be much fun either.
Gay activists will find nothing to cheer at Certain Young Men, and its ultimate conclusion is oddly negative, that gays should forego victim status and try to make peace with themselves and a still hostile outside world of muggers and mockers. Just because you are gay doesn't necessarily mean you have to employ a gay plumber to express solidarity; Gill at the last comes full circle, back to Coward's philosophy that sex is not necessarily something to shout about, and that sexual politics is a contradiction in its own terms. Jeremy Northam leads a strong cast, but if Gill had not been his own director the play could just possibly have been more sharply focused in production.
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