Waiting for colour
The Pride, a debut play by Alexei Kaye Campbell at London's Royal Court Theatre, begins with a pepper of clipped 1950s vowels, and the audience can't help but giggle: 'I lived in a tiny little house at the foot of the Acropolis. Infested with mice, but absolutely charming.' Three well-bred people, chatting awkwardly over pre-dinner drinks and failing to talk about anything important to them: we know this scene from a hundred half-seen movies, and we pity their black and white existence. The play, of course, complicates these expectations - the past is another country, but we can use it to make our own seem strange.
The middle decades of the last century have a different resonance in Russian and American culture, cowering in a pall of cold war antagonism. In Britain, however, the postwar period from late 1940s into the 1960s is about thwarted desire and stifled fun. Its ur-text is the 1946 Noël Coward/David Lean film Brief Encounter, with its adulterous romantics nursing flames of passion but backing away from their impossible love. Thrillingly miserable, and based on Coward's 1930s one-acter Still Life, the film's dank yearning encapsulates a resonant notion of Britishness.
But it can be made to release other stories. In an inspired adaptation by Kneehigh Theatre, Brief Encounter was staged in a central London cinema this year. There were warnings on the posters at the front of the cinema reminding people that this was actually a live show - not something you can always say with confidence in London's west end. But director Emma Rice wonderfully located an antic energy around her lovelorn protagonists. Bunting was strewn over the auditorium, and some of Coward's saucier songs were interposed with his taut dialogue: romance was disrupted by the raucous. As played by the brilliantly pawky Amanda Lawrence, Beryl the put-upon skivvy of the refreshment rooms threatened to become the sly, giggling heart of the piece, scampering cheekily around the stage. If mid-century Britain was a place of banked-down passions, Rice suggested, it was also home to a rorty energy. Even the lovers weren't confined to their overcoats. Thanks to an aerial interlude, Laura and Alex didn't merely sit in the tearoom quivering at each other, they took flight, briefly refusing the anguished gravity of their situation. Misery is not the only fruit.
How does The Pride play with similar material? Find out after the click:
In another possible history, The Pride is very clever, very sad. Scenes alternate between the 1950s and the present, with a trio of central characters who have the same name in each era but stand in subtly different relation to each other. In the 1950s, there's a married couple and the polite homosexual with whom hubby has a conflicted affair; the 21st century sees a can't-help-himself slut who is dumped by his boyfriend and tries the patience of his best gal pal. The play culminates in the park at the Pride party, but rather than a path towards bells-and-whistles liberation, Campbell suggests that the challenges presented across 50 years are a flipside of each other: being defined by your sexuality is one thing, but does sexuality merely involve sex? In 2008, a gay journalist is commissioned by a lad's mag to write a feature about the gays and their up-for-it frolics. They're 'innovators in various fields', the editor insists: 'music, fashion, fucking dogging.' Is that all there is?
Scholars like Dominic Shellard and Dan Rebellato have tried to rewrite the history of mid-century drama, and in the process resurrect dramatists like Terence Rattigan, a gay writer of straightish plays. I'm still not altogether convinced that Rattigan is a major writer - if you're not fairly posh and ridiculously over-sensitive, you tend to lose claim on his interest, let alone sympathy. But an era when some things couldn't be expressed, and others might not easily be felt, adds interesting pressure to a dramatic situation (it's as if wartime privations were still in place: is your congress really necessary?). We continue sifting through those black and white years to find out about ourselves.
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