Saturday, February 28, 2009

Theatre Review: Plague over England by Nicholas de Jongh

Plague over England.
Nicholas de Jongh.

Duchess Theatre, London
Booking to 19 May, 2009

Reviewed by John Dixon


There’s been an encouraging number of gay plays recently. Now here’s one produced last March on the fringe and revived in the West End - with a projected run till mid-May.

Plague over England concerns the arrest for soliciting of John Gielgud in 1953. The author is Nicholas de Jongh, whose study of homosexuality in the theatre, Not in Front of the Audience, well equips him to deal with the topic. He’s also a theatre critic, not necessarily a passport to being a playwright, even a play about theatre-land. Happily this is no biopic or star vehicle, no theatre-history self-indulgence or name dropping. The play gives the background to the purge, (an American Senate report categorising homosexuals as a threat to national security); the British Establishment’s response to Washington (by invoking a law that penalised men not for what they did but for what they appeared to wish to do) - and how this affected a recently-ennobled actor, who wasn’t even caught in the act, but merely smiled at a pretty entrapment officer.

The advantage of basing a play on this particular victim is that nothing is clear cut. Gielgud inhabits a double-world, between acting superbly well and being himself imperfectly. He’s unsure if he’s on- or off-stage. When arrested he doesn’t think to call a solicitor. He gives his profession as clerk, uses his first name, Arthur, that he’d dropped years before. He believes the police when assured that newspaper reporters never arrive for early morning court appearances. He’s astounded when the story breaks. Who knows about it? Who knew I was homo? How could they tell?

This naivety is caught from the start when Gielgud enters backstage rehearsing a play, lines of which foreshadow his own situation. The Mother figure, Sybil Thorndike, asks ‘When are you going to get married and settle down?’ Gielgud fluffs his lines, poo-poohs the role, and wonders why he agreed to appear in the play, rather than something contemporary.

In the postscript, twenty years later and after a seismic change in attitudes, (including the pretty policeman turning gay) Gielgud is shown accepting a role Pinter’s No Man’s Land, as a closet gay.

Several of the cast were from the original production. The lead, Michael Feast, resemblances Gielgud, in looks, dapper clothing, and voice. It can’t be easy playing another actor, even one you’ve worked with. It’s one thing for likes of Rory Bremner et al., to imitate celebrities for a couple of minutes; quite another to sustain a serious role throughout the evening and enter the nuances provided by the script.

The other actors – all excellent - had double-up roles. Celia Imrie as Sybil Thorndike and the very different proprietress of a gentlemen’s club; Simon Dutton as an Establishment lawyer and as the urbane theatrical producer, Binkie Beaumont. Poor David Burt was a lavatory attendant, newsvendor, camp barman and a valet!

The fixed set – dark polished wood - proved adaptable. Side doors led to a courtroom annex, ministerial offices, or cubicles. Two revolving panels – one for a wash-basin or dressing room table and mirror; the other for a urinal, drinks bar or desk – ensured quick scene changes.

Any limitations of the set were overcome off-stage. Gielgud stood front stage penitent, saying he’d been tired and drunk the night before, and the voice of the judge boomed out the sentence. The demonstration and the retirement party of the proprietress were off-stage. Most telling was the clapping that greeted Gielgud when he went from backstage (our stage) onstage for his first London appearance after the arrest. ‘Come on, John,’ said Sybil. ‘I’ll take you on. They wouldn’t dare boo me.’ There was a perceptible feel-good shuffle in the audience and an attempt to join in the clapping!

The worry is that the demands on the lead actor are such that the play may never reach the provincial or amateur repertoire. The impact and lesson of the work could be made wider and more lasting were a filmed version made available on video for sale, hire and in libraries.

John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.

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