The weekend of our first same-sex weddings, Dan Phillips started rehearsals for the UK premier of Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings. Harvey Fierstein’s 1987 plays depict a darker chapter in the lives and loves of gay men – the AIDS epidemic. Part of a blackly comic trilogy, their original Broadway run closed after just a few performances amidst a media frenzy surrounding the disease; perhaps the reason why Fierstein is better known today for musical theatre – he wrote the books for La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots – and we tend to turn to writers like Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer for plays on the subject.
Besides, says Phillips, a young Director from Swansea, “these are plays about AIDS, but none of the characters have AIDS. Unlike The Normal Heart or Angels in America where you watch healthy young men onstage wear away as the virus eats them alive, Fierstein looks at the people it leaves behind – and that’s very rarely done.” Safe Sex studies the psychological damage wrought by the epidemic; the fear that the spectre of HIV drives into one couple’s intimate life. On Tidy Endings is a post-mortem of two relationships, as a gay man and a straight woman react to the death of the man they both loved. The opener is “very much about how AIDS changed gay relationships, whereas the second play is about loss, whether you’re gay, straight, male or female,” Phillips says. “There’s the undercurrent of a certain period, and a certain tragedy that hit a community and then started to spread.”
Our cultural encounters with AIDS are almost always through the prism of this particular time. Stock footage of Reagan and Thatcher, synth pop and pink triangles bearing “Silence = Death'”: for many young people today, these are our immediate associations with the disease – the world captured in the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague. Yet new HIV infections are on the rise. Doesn’t focusing on the past perpetuate the misconception that the danger’s over? “That’s a good question,” Phillips considers. “But these plays don’t really feel like 80s plays… and it gets people talking about it, which I guess is the main thing.”
He’s also keen to fill in gaps people might have in their knowledge of LGBT history. This starts young: “I trained as a teacher before I became a director, and worked with a lot of kids in schools. You see the amount that’s taught on the civil rights movement and the bloodshed there, yet nothing about the LGBT community’s fight.” Phillips experienced first-hand the legacy of Section 28, the Tories’ local government act that forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools – something he’s spoken about with his cast in rehearsals. “I was teaching in a school recently, and sent out an email to highlight the importance of this weekend. I was told not to spread my personal opinion throughout the staff. I’ve also taught sex education in schools, and been told that I’m not allowed to talk about certain things.”
Phillips hopes his staging will speak directly to a contemporary British audience. “I have a feeling about accents in theatre, especially American,” he says. “They create distance, separate you from the reality of the play.” With the blessing of the plays’ literary agent, he’s anglicised the dialogue, re-set the references and swapped San Francisco for London – our own “gay mecca”. America was hit harder by the epidemic, but “because it wasn’t as dominant in this country,” Phillips suggests, “what you got was the fear of something much bigger”. He’s set his version in 1986, the year of the government’s infamous ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign – tombstones on leaflets through every letterbox, John Hurt’s voice thundering over prophetic TV ads. “It was the point that there was the most fear, without really understanding what this thing was; you didn’t see it wherever you went but you heard about it, which is a lot more frightening.”
Two years in the making, Phillips’s spin on the plays has been “a real passion project”. As well as tweaking the dialogue, he made the decision to drop the trilogy’s third play, Manny and Jake. “I felt it had dated, in a sense – it was very abstract, quite a forward thinking and strong piece of writing in its time, but I didn’t feel that it conveyed the message it wanted to anymore. Rather than try and force it to be something that it’s not, it made more sense just to drop it.”
This summer, he’ll also revive Fierstein’s International Stud at the Edinburgh Fringe. What draws him to the playwright’s work? “He resonates with me. I just love the way that he can create gut-wrenching emotion and laugh out loud humour in the same piece. So many AIDS plays are just bleak. But there’s something about Fierstein’s work – he lived through it and he lost people, yet he still manages to find the humour in it.”
The production of Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings opens this month at the Tristan Bates Theatre, and benefits the Make a Difference trust, raising funds for people in the theatre and entertainment industries living with HIV and AIDS. “I’ve always wanted to do something for MAD, and I feel so privileged that I finally have the chance to get these plays on”, Phillips says. “Human nature is to deal with things by humour. And the more we rehearse these plays, the more we’re finding that. It makes for an evening of not just education, but also entertainment – you can’t get away from the fact that whatever else theatre does, it has to entertain.”
Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings will be at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 22 April until 17 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Tristan Bates website.