REVIEW: Queen (Smoke Labours Productions)

I too was disapointed when the surviving members of Queen did not make an apperance

Gay-up Storytelling [by James Wenley]

The passing of this bill will validate my place in society. It does nothing for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples that have gone before me and had to hide their relationships. It does wonders for those of us that will be able to enjoy it at this time of great change. Most of all though, it moves mountains for future New Zealanders, who will live in a time where its  normal to be able to love whoever they want to. When we start telling our kids and grandkids that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered is okay, they will stop killing themselves. They will feel like contributing members of society. They will go on to lead honest, fulfilling lives and want to find someone to love and build a life with. – Tamati Coffey, quoted in the NZ Herald yesterday morning before the passing of the marriage amendment bill.

I too was disapointed when the surviving members of Queen did not make an apperance

I got home from seeing Queen at the Basement Studio in time to catch Green MP Kevin Hague’s speech on Parliament TV. A powerful oration, it was poignant not only for the expression of his own personal experience, but the reading from submitters’ comments about their experiences too. In the third reading, politicians like Ruth Dyson and Nikki Kaye also spoke of the “powerful stories” that had been told by LGBT New Zealanders as the bill made its gay way through parliament. Today, the majority of New Zealanders are basking in the feel-good idealism of marriage equality. “Welcome to the mainstream” extended National’s Tau Henare.

Queen by playwright Sam Brooks, which examines the gay experience, could not have had a better programmed season.

By placing the play in the context of the marriage equality debate, I do not mean to suggest that Brooks is flying a political flag. Nor is it preachy. Nor does the marriage question play into its drama. It’s political only in that the play presents stories, and says these stories matter. Similar to Victor Rodger’s Black Faggot, it tells a collage of different stories that expand on one identifier of people’s identity. Both plays realize the value of concentrating the universal onto the level of the individual personal. Indeed, what got through to the politicians, and helped shape public opinion, was those very stories.

Black Faggot’s perspective is revealed in its title, for Queen it is shaped by the (largely gay male) perspective of Brook’s twenty-something generation. At a time of heightened media interest – and representation of – the ubiqituous “Gay Community”, Queen is a welcome voice on the new gay norm. While Black Faggot uses humour as its main weapon, Queen is more introspective: questioning, self-deprecating, reflecting, yearning.

Brooks’ reputation is growing as a thoughtful dramatic writer (Goddess and Mab’s Room was staged as a double bill last year, And I was Like, which was shortlisted for the Playmarket ADAM NZ Play award, was produced at the Basement just last month). His previously staged plays have all had queer characters and themes, and in Queen he continues to scratch away at what it all means. Queen starts with a definition of Gay as attraction to the people of the same gender and asks is that “all it is?”. We’re given some familiar beats: the first kiss, first sexual experience, the coming out. But at all times the play tries hard not to be reductive. A character relates the peculiarity of not having a good coming out story and the oddity of the whole exhibition (nobody comes out as straight). Another talks of being a bad gay. There’s an inherent dissatisfaction, and questioning of the “accepted” gay narrative, from a generation that has had new and different battles to fight. The “it gets better” campaign is dissected: for some, life just sucks.

Brooks’ script is a stream-of-consciousness like monologue that has been apportioned by director Jacinta Scadden between four actors: Morgan Albrecht, Samuel Christopher, Cole Jenkins, and Luke Wilson. The collective playing style is suitably contained for the Basement Studio, and a strong warmness and truth is displayed by the actors. Scadden’s staging of three distinct spaces in front and either side of the audience makes for a communal relationship between the actors and their audience and an atmosphere of sharing.

The men emerge as recognisable characters: Christopher rejects stereotypes, Wilson as vulnerable and sentimental, Jenkins quests for identity. Jenkins gifts us the evening’s comic highlight when explaining why gay icon Beyonce is his role model of choice. The nature of the script means however that there is not always a fixed position, and Jenkins and Wilson, linked by costuming of jeans and tight blue shirt, both relate their sexual encounter with a drummer named Snoopy. Albrecht pops up from a central chair about a third of the way in, and her role remains ill-defined. Her text suggests she is taking a gay male perspective like the boys, so there is perhaps a gendered attempt at a more universal application of the stories. She works best when she seems to offer a wider-perspective, such as her observations about the “Baby Gay” phenomena, in which the recently out need to let everyone know how gay they really are.

Amber Malloy’s lighting design is nicely attuned to the play’s atmospheres, keeping actors well lit for most of the duration, but knowing when to take out front light for key dramatic moments. The rows of rainbow coloured fairy lights above us is probably the most clichéd part of the show, but a very nice touch indeed.

Text and performance really hummed in one sequence when the toll of the secret relationship with the Captain of the 1st 15 is laid bare with slim words, but devastating feeling from Christopher. Another memorable moment was the uncanny encounter with a lone 50+-year-old homosexual in a bar, a symbol of an older and different generation. Is this to be their fate too?

“Queen” is claimed at play’s end as a new descriptor to define themselves, which in of itself contains a rainbow of different meanings. Really, it is whatever you want to make of it. Queen asks the questions, and relates some of the experiences, which are important in the brave new world that New Zealand has woken up to find today.  Out-standing.

Queen is presented by Smoke Labours Productions and plays at The Basement Studio until 25 April. Details see The Basement

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Johnny Givins

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