As Coming Clean opens the 2017 Queer Festival at the King’s Head in London, Gay Times spoke to director Adam Spreadbury-Maher about the ever-continuing importance of LGBT+ theatre, representation and opportunities for queer artists in modern Britain.
This is the first London revival of Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean. Why is this piece important now to revisit?
The piece is set at a really interesting juncture in the history of the LGBTQI+ community. In 1982, fifteen years had passed since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, but the AIDS crisis had yet to emerge in the UK, so there was a sense that for the first time, it was possible to stage a play about the emotional lives of gay people rather than about criminality, prejudice or disease. 50 years on from the Sexual Offences Act and 35 years on from the last major London production, it makes sense to reassess the work and the period it’s set in.
Does the success of Kevin’s My Night With Reg add additional pressures in ensuring you deliver now, or does that add a warmth that the audience come with love for the piece?
I think the popularity of My Night With Reg has been useful. In a way, the success of the 2014 revival has made this production possible. It reignited an interest in, and appreciation for Kevin’s work which I hope we’re able to carry forward and introduce audiences to an Elyot play that’s less well known but which contains all of the beauty, joy and sheer poetry that you’d expect to find in his writing.
What sort of audience do you expect the show to attract? Will it be a majority LGBT+ audience say?
I think there will be a large LGBTQI+ contingent in the audience; we programme a lot of queer work at the King’s Head Theatre and this production is headlining our 2017 Queer Season. That said, Kevin Elyot is a major post-war dramatist and the play should appeal to anyone who appreciates work from the twentieth century dramatic canon. I hope we attract the broad and diverse audience that the text deserves.
There’s a rightful ever-going conversation around LGBT+ actors playing queer roles. Was it important to consider the LGBT+ community in your casting?
It was important. I think that the King’s Head Theatre’s position as the industry leader for ethical employment on the fringe means that we attract actors from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, be that in terms of sexual identity or other forms of diversity.
Do you believe the opportunities for LGBT+ actors at the same level as others in a mainstream market?
There’s always work to be done and I think that there are sections of the cultural industries where sexual identity is still stigmatised. Particularly in the upper echelons of the film world. That said, I do think that there has been some real progress made. There are a number of openly gay actors who we now consider to be national treasures and I’m proud to be a gay Artistic Director working in London and programming work that represents and includes all sections of the LGBTQI+ community.
Kevin Elyot’s work has been instrumental in the success of LGBT+ theatre. Why do you think his work has continued to be received so well?
I think that what Kevin achieved through his body of work is extraordinary. Coming Clean is considered to be the first mature play which depicted a gay relationship within a domestic setting. He paved the way for the great plays and playwrights that followed, such as Jonathan Harvey and I think that LGBTQI+ theatre owes him an immense debt.
Why was having a Queer Festival 2017 an important creative choice to have at the King’s Head?
We have a Queer Festival at the King’s Head Theatre every year. We’ve often found ourselves questioned as to why 30% of our programming is made up of queer work in a way that theatres programming heteronormative work wouldn’t be, so it’s clear there’s still work to be done. This year, I wanted to extend it into a two-month season to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. It’s a landmark year, and a chance to reflect upon how far the LGBTQI+ community has come and how far we have to go.
So why Coming Clean to open the festival?
It’s an artistic policy at the King’s Head Theatre that if a play is on at our venue, you won’t have seen it anywhere else. Coming Clean has not had a major London revival in 35 years so this revival is a wonderful opportunity for audiences to see a significant, and criminally unsung, piece of drama that they’re unlikely to have across before.
LGBT+ theatre is thankfully on the rise. Is this an insight that aligns with the levels of equality in the UK?
I think that LGBTQI+ theatre has had a strong following in the UK, but particularly in London, for the past 20 years now and I think we can attribute that partly to Kevin Elyot. What seems to be happening at the moment, in tandem with progressive achievements such as the legalisation of gay marriage, is that queer stories are being accepted by the mainstream culture. People are cottoning on to the fact that just because a play has gay characters doesn’t mean it can’t explore universal themes. Good storytelling knows no boundaries.
And finally, what are you hopeful people take from Coming Clean, and also the Queer Festival overall?
I hope that people are blown away by the quality of the writing, as I was, and that it makes them reconsider the importance of Kevin Elyot as a dramatist beyond My Night With Reg. I hope that the themes of the play help people to make sense of their lives and their relationships and their desires; the theatre is a place where we can be entertained but also challenged and met with new ideas. That’s what the queer festival is about really; championing LGBTQI+ lives and cultures on a public platform.
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