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GT meets Mark Gatiss, Ian Hallard and the cast of The Boys in the Band

As nine men gather in a New York apartment for a birthday celebration, party host Michael gets an unwanted surprise of his own in the shape of a figure from his past. As the booze is drunk and the dope smoked, the mood swings from hilarity to heartbreak.

Having debuted in 1968, just before the Stonewall riots, Matt Crowley’s groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, changed the face of gay theatre. Later made into a film adaptation in 1970, the soon-to-be cult phenomenon returns to London later this month to mark almost 20 years since the last West End production.

Ahead of its opening, GT sat down exclusively with Mark Gatiss, husband Ian Hallard, and the cast of The Boys in the Band to find out why such a historical play like this is still so important to audiences in 2016.

Mark, for you as a gay man… Mark Gatiss: I’m not gay? [Pause] I’m joking…

Behave! For you as a gay man, is it nice to be part of something that somewhat champions the same community you’re part of? Mark: Of course! I’ve been saying this for a long time now but I’m always about 50 on the Pink List every year and I always wonder how I can be more gay this year. I say it each year. For me, I’ve been very fortunate in my career and I’d love to give back as much as I can. This is an important play that we all need to know about.

Why’s that? Mark: I think it’s great to give back to help others. This is not a majority thing to say for some but the price of progress in a way is to give people the luxury of indifference. And without sounding like a colonel that says ‘I didn’t fight a war so you could have your hair that long’, there’s an element of that.

For young people in general, but particularly in young gay men, there’s no idea of before. They don’t tend to know what happened six-months before. What happened is ancient history to them so it’s very important to acknowledge what people went through as we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. 

There’s a superb creative team behind this show. Talk us through what the first day of rehearsals was like? Ian Hallard: We had a pre-rehearsal day where we did photos for publicity and we’d all met then before going to the pub afterwards. I got horribly drunk and started being a cunt to them but hey, I’m just like that in the play. I’m method.

When you first read the script – what made you want to be part of this play? Ian: I think technically, it’s so well constructed and the first half is almost a farce of these gay men having to hide themselves from the straight man that comes in. When you’ve got such really skilled comic performers like you do in this cast, it’s hilarious! We were just saying how much laughter we’ve had in the rehearsal room because we’ve mainly just set that; now we move to the darker stuff.

I think it’s unusual to find a play that has such rich stuff for all the characters. Some are bigger than others, but it’s an ensemble piece with nine characters who all have really beautiful moments, either comedy or emotional.

Mark: If this play was just about one person’s coming out journey, you might say that things have changed a lot since then. This is about a group of friends that has an amazing universality to it and is still extremely current, and all the people are very recognisable still. Amazingly, a lot of the stuff that might seem of its time feels very current. The masculinity debate, open relationships, the race angle and the mental health stuff. It’s all there!

Greg Lockett: For me, my first exposure to the play was reading it and getting it for the audition. I just devoured it. It was finished in two sittings as I was filming in the first sitting, but about 65% of the way in, it turned so much and in so many ways that I wasn’t expecting. It felt really shocking to me to have read something that was so surprising, particularly for me as a black man and the only black character in the play. A lot of the themes still resonate today. 

Is this story still relevant today? Jack Derges: The play was the first commercial gay play done and I think it’s very important that young gay people know its position in the history of the LGBT movement.

After playing in London, the show will move around the UK on a tour. Do you think audiences will react differently at each venue? Ben Mansfield: I think London and Brighton might be the same. I think that the majority of people that go to the theatre aren’t biased and I mean, look at the fucking flyer! What do they expect? [Laughs]

Is there a responsibly to discuss and approach such subjects carefully when it comes to sexuality? Mark: It’s not a responsibility but it’s actually quite exciting. It’s one of the reasons I think we’re all doing it is to present something new. Every producer is looking for a play that has been slightly forgotten and it has that feel to it. It hasn’t been done in 20 years, the gay community has moved on and it’s an extremely right time to do it again and to debate all the things it brings up. If people come having seen it before or brand new, it has so much to talk about.

Is it right to have a ‘gay play’ in 2016? Mark: That’s a very good question! It is kind of what we’re all taking of in which you make such progress in terms of marriage and equality. There isn’t a ‘gay storyline’ in EastEnders anymore because there’s lots of people who are incidentally gay which is how it should be. But that doesn’t mean that everything is rosy. If you present a play like this, it allows you to think and talk about how it’s different across the world.

Ian: It’s the whole argument about diversity generally say with women shortlists’ and should their be a specific ‘gay theatre’ or quota through race, sexuality, gender or anything. Do we need it? Well, yes we probably still do because we are still minorities. We do live in a white, heterosexual society and I still do think there’s a need.

Is there a need then to insist on certain minorities in theatre as a must? Greg: The question has been asked tones and tons of time before about racial quotas. It’s something that there’s no definitive answer for each and every theatre across the board is different. You run the risk, without something in place, of people unconsciously and completely unintentionally not including minorities from castings and theatres just because they don’t think of them. They don’t come to mind. It’s not their fault, it’s that unconscious privilege that people live with and that they are unaware of.

Ian: The problem is that if you go to the nth degree, you end up in a situation where people are only allowed to tick boxes where the actors are the same as the characters. Only gay actors can play gay characters. With this production, you’ve got a mixture of gay and straight actors playing pretty much all gay characters — what do you do about that?

Mark — how is it going to work everyday with your husband, Ian? It’s early days but it’s going very well. It’s great! We’re actually very glad to see each other. Ian was doing a play in Wales for the first three months of this year and then the day after he got back, I left to do Sherlock so we’re having a great time. We’re not taking the parts home with us. [Laughs]

How did it come about that you’d both be part of the same cast? Mark: He did a reading about four years ago and he was kind of attached and then it just fitted perfectly into my schedule.

Do you guys get any interaction on stage? Mark: Oh, yeah, yeah! No spoilers but it’s great fun. It’s funny actually being an all-male company. We’re all getting on really well and it’s fun!

Each character in the play has a nickname, with the likes of Jew Fairy and Cowboy — are these stereotypes of gay men likely to surprise or offend people? Mark: He’s called Cowboy and he is specifically a midnight cowboy. If you read the dramatis personae, it describes them to you and explains more about who they are. It says that Harold, a man with unusually semitic features. That’s very much an understanding to who he is. Harold is absolutely self-loathing. They describe themselves in the most brash of ways and so they do match.

Maybe, and of which is a familiar way for some, Harold say gets in there first to say the outrageous thing so no one can touch him. Yes, this is what they are: “I’m a jew fairy, so fuck you!” It’s not about stereotypical names. I think they’re both a product of its time but also current.

How do you mean? Mark: I always get sad and cross when characters get named a certain way. Take Antony Cotton’s character in Coronation Street. The first thing he gets is an avalanche of people asking why he has to be so camp. Not all gay people are like that, like here, but that’s not the point. You don’t go into something trying to be all gay people, you’re just this person who just happens to be very camp. What I hope, and the focus for me, is that they’re not just characters that are loud because you can have lots of different types of gay men. And here, I hope that shows. 

They’re taking the stereotype and making it a positive before someone else makes it a negative, right? Mark: I think that’s very true. If we think back, and for that time when this show was first written, the community was facing adversity in a New York state. Gatherings of gay men weren’t officially allowed and it has this slightly co-dependant, savage humour running that keeps them together.

Even if it’s done in the form of a piece of theatre, do you agree that if you’re to reap the rewards of someone else and their hard work, then you should know how hard they fought? Mark: Yes, totally! It’s not an exclusive thing to the gay community but if you don’t read your history then you’re condemned to repeat it. We’re living in very demanding times in which a lot of things that appeared to be off the table are now back on. It’s very dangerous to assume that because we’ve got these things that they’re always going to remain.

Meaning? Mark: Take the massive racism and intolerance from the Brexit debate. I can totally imagine that, and it isn’t my personal opinion, but we almost start to turn in on ourselves again and turn on the usual suspects — you and I, the jews and the blacks. Who are we going to hate now? Well, the same old faces. That’s who!

And finally, for audiences thinking of coming to see the play, is this an exclusively gay play only open for gay men? Mark: There’s inevitably certain things that gay men will connect with more, but it’s about a group of friends. This is a play of people and the equality of love. This is a very recognisable world and there’s certain things in it if you’re a gay person. But, I do think it’s placed around universal and potent things anyone can connect with.


Venue and ticket details for The Boys in the Band can be found via boysbandplay.com.

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