As it returns for a major revival at the King’s Head Theatre, Gus Mitchell talks to two actors from This Island’s Mine about the enduring legacy of Gay Sweatshop, Section 28 and the importance of community.
“Gay Sweatshop has always been a real inspiration as a queer actor. They were really writing bolder plays with queer characters often than I think we even see now.”
Gay Sweatshop were one of several companies who created a revolution in British alternative theatre between the 70s and 90s. They focused on telling as wide a variety of new stories as possible and worked with a range of contemporary writers grappling with the evolving queer experience across the decades. One of these writers was Philip Osment, whose broad tapestry of gay life in the late 80s prefigures the kind of ambition and scale which Angels in America pursued just a few years later. When producer Mark Sands saw the original Gay Sweatshop production in 1988, he found it an overwhelming experience, and the seeds for a revival (thirty years after Section 28) were laid.
I’m talking to Tom Ross-Williams who plays Mark (along with other characters) in the major revival of This Island’s Mine, staged by Ardent Theatre Company and directed by Philip Wilson. I am lucky to also catch Corey Montague-Sholay who primarily plays Selwyn, Mark’s boyfriend. Their story is only one of many strands of narrative: “an interconnected tapestry,” as Ross-Williams puts it, dealing with a total of 18 characters, centring on Thatcher’s Britain in 1988, the North and London, extending to the America’s Deep South whilst also bringing into the mix Shakespeare’s The Tempest, from which it draws its title.
“Here we have revived something that actually was really expansive, epic and kind of beautiful in its boldness,” Ross-Williams enthuses. “I think its ambition, its reluctance to be defined through simple narratives… we get to talk about all of life and that’s something that’s forgotten from a lot of contemporary gay plays.” For both Ross-Williams and Montague-Sholay, one of the main standouts of the play is Osment’s drawing from several styles of free-associative dramatic construction, like Strindberg’s ‘dream play’ and the ‘memory plays’ of Tennessee Williams, to create a narrative which, in Ross-Williams’ words “is not afraid to reach its tentacles to really bizarre places.” They and Montague-Sholay both multirole, in a truly “ensemble” piece.
This Island’s Mine was written at the time of Section 28 – an amendment which stated that local authorities ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish materials with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained [state] school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. One of the play’s characters, 17-year-old Luke, flees his home in the North for London, escaping bullying at school, misunderstanding at home and a seemingly violent call from the rest of society that he not be his true self. Section 28 was part of and involved a larger set of crackdowns against the acceptability, or even acknowledgement, of homosexuality in public life and in doing so, particularly targeted LGBT youth and youth organisations.
“In Thatcher’s Britain there was a sense of queer people growing up in a space where it wasn’t even something that could be spoken of in an educational setting, a real erasure of identity,” Ross-Williams says, as we discuss the social background to the play and its enduring relevance. The play does deal with the AIDS crisis. Mark, who works as a chef, is fired over fears he will transmit the disease. Montague-Sholay adds that he was “surprised by the actual real level of active fear there was. No one knows what HIV was in a real way, so people do believe that a handshake will do it, or a kiss, or eating food which has been prepared by someone with HIV”.
But, Ross-Williams is anxious to point out that “it is hardly a play where we watch young gay people die of AIDS,” but rather a multitude of narratives being promoted and given visibility in a way advanced both for its own time and often still for ours. Montague-Sholay brings up the two interracial couples, gay and lesbian, at the forefront of the play, with Ross-Williams elaborating that in the 80s, lesbians were “often erased from queer history, who were really key players in a lot of the act-ups and fight against AIDS stigma”.
It seems that Osment was truly attempting to craft a celebration and dissection of the variety and nuances of gay and lesbian life in his time, and it seems that for both actors the experience of reviving the play has been throwing further light on how such stories are written today. I pose the question of why the work of companies doing the sort of radical, inclusive, community-focused performances of Gay Sweatshop have been either forgotten or have been hard to sustain. “I think there was a sense of really doing stuff for communities,” Ross-Williams answers. “Community Theatre… seems to be a less celebrated art form and [with Gay Sweatshop] there wasn’t that hierarchy in the same way. It feels like we’ve lost a lot of work which tries to expand nuance around queer identities because there isn’t the same environment around creating queer theatre within the community”.
When Gay Sweatshop shut up shop in the early 90s, it certainly left an adaptable gap for a further queer theatre which was unashamed of its politics and bold in the breadth of its storytelling. “The play’s not a telling off, or a ‘remember it was terrible’. It’s … weirdly kind of the opposite,” Montague-Sholay concludes. One of Philip Osment’s main wishes was, finally, to examine and to show the unignorably enduring connections between all forms of marginalisation, from another character in 1930s Vienna, piano teacher and Jewish refugee Miss Rosenblum, to the poisonous homophobia of Thatcher’s conservative policies and, no doubt, to many of the conflicts raging in Britain and around the world today between those seeking merely to exist and those seeking only to exclude. From this angle, it will be fascinating to see what This Island’s Mine can say to us anew thirty years on.
This Island’s Mine is playing until 8 June For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website.