There are many ways a work of fiction or drama can date. If the intention is satirical, it can become dated within a matter of weeks, or even days, as the details of the political or social scandal (or whatever its target may be) are forgotten. Satire doesn’t automatically become dated: after all, we still read Pope, Swift and Orwell. Plays (and films) can also appear dated simply because there’s something wrong about their sets or costumes – the designer has perhaps represented only what’s ephemeral about the period being portrayed, and overlooked the essentials of the “look” he or she wanted to capture. (This is a common fault of many recent “concept”-driven opera productions.) Most often, though, when a work of drama is revived, it appears dated because a change in attitudes means the audience no longer shares the received wisdom or feelings of the original audience. This tendency to appear dated has sorted out the revivals of an awful lot of plays from the 1960s onwards, and it’s easy to see which works by, say Pinter, Wesker and Osborne will have an afterlife.
But I don’t think that, before the current revival at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre of the recently, sadly deceased Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, I’ve ever seen a play where a change of attitudes and history has resulted in a genre-shift. I loved the play in its original 1994 production, set against its background of dreadful and constant worry about Aids. Then its funny bits seemed sharp and above all, brave, laughing in the teeth of despair. The play was a scary, seemingly realistic report from the trenches of gay life, with a wry moral about the dangers inherent in the enviable sexual freedom of the gay lifestyle. It was a play about friendship, love, betrayal, loss and loneliness.
It still is. But twenty years later no one in the developed world need die of Aids and gay people can marry. This is surely one of the most dramatic (and affirmative) turnarounds of opinion and attitude of our lifetimes. In 1994 early death was the inevitable outcome of the male love and friendships portrayed, and the play had a tragic edge My Night with Reg is no longer a problem play obsessed with disease and death but, as Michael Billington elegantly put it in The Guardian, “a deceptive boulevard comedy haunted by death.”
Director Robert Hastie has dealt with the issue of the play seeming dated by shifting the text on its axis, and playing up the smart-guy funny side, to the point where it has become a sophisticated dark comedy. Elyot seems, in a fashion, to have licensed this, by his internal jokey references to the French film where they sit around and talk too much – obviously Ma Nuit chez Maud, from which Reg takes its title, and his in-jokes about, e.g., brand names, or what happens on Hampstead Heath.
The piece opens with Guy’s flat-warming party for his mates from university, who are all approaching 40. Also on stage is a young Birmingham house decorator, painting Guy’s conservatory. (We know the Brummie is fit under his overalls – just how fit actor Lewis Reeves is, we get to see when he appears nude in the last scene.) Guy (winningly played by Jonathan Broadbent) is the fusspot gay who never gets laid (one of his chums says he’s the type who masturbates wearing rubber gloves). He has had a fetish-collecting, never-declared passion for John (Julian Ovendon), who appeared with him in an undergrad production of The Bacchae, as did the camp Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild). Dan lives with his lover, Reg. There is also the odd couple, the lower middle class Bernie (Richard Cant), who bores for England, and his blunt-speaking bus-driver boyfriend, Benny (Matt Bardock).
Reg of the title never appears, but he has cheated on Dan with John, Benny and probably everyone else in the circle of friends except Guy. The action takes place over four years in the 1980s, and when one of the scenes opens following Reg’s funeral, we know – and dread – what’s to come.
The trouble is that, like Schnitzler’s 1897 La Ronde (which I seem to remember was frequently cited as an inspiration for My Night with Reg in 1994), when you change a play with a daisy-chain plot from something tragic into a comedy, you risk the characters becoming more stereotypes than individuals. I’d say it’s the inevitable consequence of looking for the laughs in the script. Perhaps there’s some other explanation; but on Mr. Hastie’s reading of the text, what’s the explanation for Bernie and working-class Benny being part of Guy’s social circle? In 1994 I think we assumed that someone with a taste for rough trade had introduced them to the set; in any case, their presence didn’t seem so puzzling as it does now. The 2014 Dan seems to be unnecessarily flamboyant; John with his pinkie-ring a token minor aristocrat; and Guy, with his kitchen apron, typecast too.
The Wikipedia entry for La Ronde says: “By choosing characters across all levels of society, the play offers social commentary on how sexual contact transgresses boundaries of class.” Schnitzler intended his characters to be schematic. In this production Elyot’s play feels to me as though it’s had a touch of schematism imposed upon it.
Still, it’s a terrific show, especially the scenes where the three uni pals do their David Bowie routine. And especially at the intimate Donmar, where several hetero actors (I infer from their online biographies) stage some of the hottest live sex scenes you’ll ever see. When two of the cast get their kit off, you can see exactly what the other characters see in them.
My London critic colleagues have, so far, unanimously awarded this production 4 and even 5 stars, so my carping is eccentric and singular. But I think it does raise interesting questions, and questions that will have more and more vitality, as films are increasingly made into plays, and even into musicals. Are the characters lost, or altered for the worse, in the process?