Commenting on gay theatre can become a minefield fraught with sweeping generalisations, unfounded assertions and downward spirals into emotive ranting. Why, then, would a theatre commentator like myself wish to enter such volatile territory?
Quite simply, because there is still an entire mass of gay men who lack representation on the British stage and screen. I am one of them. We are the gay men who fail to recognise ourselves in the stereotypes frequently portrayed in theatre and television alike, who have different interests and desires to those depicted in heterocentric narratives and who feel that our stories are just as important as the comedic tales told about us on our behalf. We want a voice.
And when theatre, gay or otherwise, fails to give its audience what it demands then discussion is absolutely necessary to resolve the problem. Take any popular soap, for example, and you’ll find that gay men almost always come with a full-bodied camp persona. The exceptions to this rule, of course, are the men who initially started their roles as heterosexual so that viewers can see how men who act straight inevitably fall into a drunken depression when faced with the prospect of being confirmed “fairies”. EastEnders offers two relatively recent examples of such limited characterisations: they presented a character who supposedly shocked everybody by coming out because, of course, how could a man who is straight-acting and Asian (don’t even get me started on the lack of gay characters from ethnic minorities) be homosexual? His character left his wife, defied familial rejection and religious ridicule so that he could be with his new male partner. Needless to say, despite all of these sacrifices audiences watched both men continuously split up, drink themselves stupid, consider affairs and question their sexual identities. Whilst gripping for some, the storyline was a mockery to serious gay relationships.
From a personal perspective, I am engaged to my long-term partner and my relationship has never led to any of the above. Granted, soap operas exaggerate the drama of everyday life but they also rely on maintaining a relatability factor that just isn’t available for most gay men. Unsurprisingly, the depiction of this gay relationship failed to impress equal rights organisations such as Stonewall, which has reported that realistic gay characters are present in just 0.6% of British television.
Celebrating camp can exist alongside more intelligent depictions of gay men
In truth, the majority of gay men live very comfortably with their sexuality and – shock, horror – many even possess mostly characteristics that are usually attributed to their heterosexual counterparts. Of course, there is no denying that there is also a sizeable portion of the gay community who do shine with camp flair, who proudly own the title of “queens”, and who indulge in shopping and gay clubbing as many stereotypes reflect.
Being and celebrating camp is by no means a bad thing; it’s the essence of the beginnings of a strong gay arts community and it comes with a lifestyle which appeals to many. To that extent, venues such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Above the Stag offer some highly entertaining performances that are integral to maintaining the bonds between LGBT people, and I thoroughly recommend attending Duckie at the RVT on Thursdays for a spectacular night out. Equally, the West End hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert should be noted as a triumph for gay theatre and it was undoubtedly one of the most entertaining musicals to have enjoyed a successful run in London. The major concern is not the success of Priscilla et al, but rather the lack of an equally popular alternative approach to life as a gay man.
One major concern here is the issue of funding. In a recent interview with gay playwright, Matt Ian Kelly, I was told how his gay-themed work had been refused support from certain leading gay venues in London as it failed to feature enough nudity. To put it frankly, such venues are perpetuating the fallacy that gay men only want to see gay theatre that involves (at least) topless twenty-something men. I am certain that I am not alone in finding this approach to gay theatre both superficial and highly offensive. Fortunately, Kelly’s work is now in production with the support of Greenwich Theatre, which successfully recognises that gay audiences have a genuine hunger for intellectual, engaging work. As such, perhaps it’s time for gay practitioners to look elsewhere for funding; perhaps the limited representations of gay men are so entrenched that some of London’s renowned gay venues are themselves becoming outdated.
Where do we go from here?
With this in mind, now might be a good time to question when and how these new voices could emerge. History tells us that minorities in Britain debut in theatre and on screen as a comedic device. In the 1970s, Asian actors and actresses could seldom hope for a starring role in a lead production, and those who were offered the chance were most likely to find themselves in a comedy about race and nationality. As society progressed and supposedly became less racist (in the not-so-short space of 20 years), members of ethnic minorities were faced with the new challenge of petitioning against stereotypes in the media i.e. the fact that black characters on television in the 1990s were so frequently portrayed as criminals.
Working on the premise that the gay community is on a similar track to acceptance as ethnic minorities, history places us at the tipping point between inaccurate and factual representation. The first televised gay kiss was now 25 years ago and British drama has surely worked its way through offensive comedy characters and stereotypes. As such, the following year or two could give rise to a fresh wave of intelligent gay theatre, but it requires the support of actors, playwrights, venues and even bloggers. Ultimately the responsibility rests on the current generation of gay practitioners to make a change and now, as the UK is in the midst of discussing the legalisation of gay marriage, could be the perfect timing for any bright, young sparks to step up and make themselves and their experiences known.