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Fall 2007 | London

Fall 2007 | London

The theater revolution

How did the British theater become so queer? Shakespeare helped the gay launch by inventing the kind of moony, hypersensitive, casually suicidal, drama-queen protagonists who weren't just dead ringers for your best friends but also pioneering gay prototypes.

Restoration fops picked up the baton, and by the time Noel Coward was defining the arch tone for modern British comedy, matched by his permanently arched eyebrows, English theater was swishing so wildly it just couldn't stop.

The result today is probably the most homo-heavy performance lineup of any commercial medium. Take a look at the recent season of London theater -- from the experimental performance spaces to the grande dame West End theaters -- and almost every production trails at least some queer whiff. Among the hits: a fresh revival of the homo warhorse Cabaret; Equus, starring a post pubescent, hairier Harry Potter stripping off; the long-running Billy Elliot, whose "little boy wants to be a dancer" story line speaks to every gay man in the teary-eyed audience; the two-gay-icons-for-the-price-of-one production of The Lady From Dubuque, written by Edward Albee and offering a transcendently hammy Maggie Smith; and a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Over at the Drill Hall, a gay performance space, Take Me With You was exploring the long-running battle between religion and homosexuality in contemporary America, and the debut of Twisted at the Oval House was depicting a drug-fueled gay weekend gone wrong. The butchest play of the lot was a new production of The Sound of Music -- if you can call boys in sailor suits, sleigh bells and kittens, and a purely asexual heroine, clearly more at home with the nuns, a manly experience.

None of this gay theatrical outpouring surprises playwright Martin Sherman, whose pioneering play Bent was recently restaged in London, starring Alan Cumming as one of the two gay concentration camp inmates. The play's British homecoming is fitting.

"England experimented with openly gay plays before America did," Sherman notes, "and Bent debuted in London in 1979 to tremendous word of mouth. At that time there was no such thing as a gay play on Broadway."

And London's reputation for assuming risks has continued. "People take more chances here," Sherman stresses, "and playwrights are able to produce plays without endlessly workshopping them here, partly because in England we have subsidized theater."

The result isn't just strong gay theater but something more substantial; London is probably home now to the most ambitiously experimental, creative theater of any kind, anywhere in the world. That means the city doesn't just attract serious playwrights but also lures England's best young actors, including Chris New, whose personal trajectory is a barometer of how gay West End theater has become. New won recognition playing Cumming's lover in the Bent revival, followed up with a role as the dissolute boyfriend of a closeted gay journalist in The Reporter, and is in rehearsal for his first professional nongay role, which isn't exactly a study in flagrant heterosexuality: the cross-dressing Viola in Twelfth Night, directed by gay novelist Neil Bartlett.

New, though, emphasizes that his roles suggest more about the ambition and creativity of British theater than just its gay seam. "I was trained at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], which turned 100 years old recently, and you're so conscious of the century of actors who came before you: John Gielgud, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh. You take on the responsibility of that reputation, both to the tradition and to the need to drag that tradition into the future."

It's that sense of responsibility more than anything that may be the real secret to London's theatrical muscle, the ability to build on a stellar past without breaking its ambitious, forward-thinking stride. The payoff for New is a visible one.

"A lot of people had to leave the theater during our performance [of Bent], because they were crying so hard. And a good play should do that; it should pummel you in the gut." Softer theatergoers may disagree.

The Donmar Warehouse
The Drill Hall

The Grand Tour: Euro culture capitals

Down the hatch in Dublin
Life's a banquet in Copenhagen
Art for art's sake in Berlin
Model behavior in Milan


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