An absolute delight. Perfection…
I’m always surprised at how little actors need on a stage to create magic. In this play it is a bathtub, filled with water, which doesn’t really come into play until the very last few scenes. And yet, water does play a significant part throughout the whole story, if you pay attention. So the stage is clear to give the actors free reign of the audience’s imagination.
The play itself has been written by the insanely talented Tommy Murphy, author of the play Holding the Man, which is an iconic Australian story that has moved people to tears for a decade now. Strangers in Between was written in 2005, a wonderful coming out story in a mostly hostile environment then, now with marriage equality and equal rights quite firmly in place still an insightful coming of age story that has gained approval of both male and female, gay and straight audiences as a sign of just how timeless the language of this play turns out to be. (One of my seat partners was a young Indian man who saw a play, any play for the very first time. By the end of the show he said to me, but this is a play about gay men, how can you enjoy it as much as I? No, it is a play about humanity, about family and about friendships and that doesn’t change no matter it you are straight or, indeed, gay. He was quite puzzled by that I think 😉 )
The play itself was perfectly cast – yes, I’m biased, but hear me out: The three actors made me want to hug troubled Ben and have a night out with charismatic Will, made me want to mother young Shane and move in with Peter to just sit at his feet and have Chardonnay and good food. Guymond Simon took on two parts, Will with a rakish smile and oozing charm, and the deeply disturbed Ben, Wil King is Shane, the naive, clueless, big eyed and enthusiastic country boy who almost gets lost in the Cross in Sydney and Simon Burke is the mother figure with his self deprecating wit, his knowledge and his undeniable charm, who finally takes Shane under his wing to prevent him from falling prey to unsavoury characters. The Age called him a gay Obi wan Kenobi and I hate them for coining the phrase before I could. It is his empathy, his mastery of his craft. that shines through his scenes and had me truly moved (must have been pollen in the air in that theatre, surely)
The story: Shane, from some nondescript rural background, lands in Sydney’s The Cross, 2005 the steaming centre of gay culture. Barely two weeks later he works in a bottle-o (a shop that sells alcohol), no idea how to work the till, no idea what to tell people. In comes Will and he seems to be everything Shane has ever dreamt of. Charismatic, funny, good looking – and interested in him. There’s also Peter, in search of something nasty for his sister who’s a pain in the ass, who immediately picks up on the vibes between the two.
Neither of the men knows, but this is the beginning of new friendships, a new family even for this uprooted youngster.
Shane and Peter meet again in a bar – Shane clinging to a glass of water, while Peter, at home at the office, as he calls the bar, has a bottle of Chardonnay. With sweet naivete and the almost manic persistence of a puppy, Shane questions poor Peter about everything: where to keep honey (in the fridge? I don’t have a fridge!), what about laundry softener (on the shelf will do… ) , where to get coat hangers, would Peter please accompany him home because he likes company… yes, he is gay (it’s good to say it), , are YOU gay???? Well, yes I am. You can say it here without being beaten (oh you can say it ANYwhere nowadays, the slightly annoyed answer of Peter) why do you hate your sister? (remember the nasty wine at the bottle-o)
And all of a sudden and probably for the first time a disarmed Peter opens up about his mother’s dementia and that they had to put her into a nursing home and the sister treating her mother as if she was the mother and their mother the child…there is so much remorse but also sadness about the inability to cope with all of it. They sit, then Shane says … so, what about anal sex? The look on Peter’s face as he is questioned about this … a priceless piece of acting that’ll stay with me forever.
So poor Shane, slightly more streetsavvy now, catches a sexually transmitted disease (something very bad) from Will. When he’s finally ready to face that fact, he goes to Peter who has taken to feeding him regularly, once again trying to ask him for company. But this time, over a glass of wine, and while venting about Will, who hasn’t called or come back for a while, the conversation gets more and more erotic. With breathless admiration and in vivid detail Shane recalls the way Will looked and smelled and acted, not realising – or maybe yes, realising and trying out just how far he can go – what effect that has on his friend. When he stands up, slowly opening his belt buckle, Peter gets to his knees almost in supplication, hands shaking, face alight with – – – and then Shane screams at him – he’s only 16, and it works like a cold shower on Peter. Something has triggered the boy, he hurts Peter, accusing him of vile things, until Peter can’t take it anymore and, tears in his eyes, throws him out.
Ben is in town. Ben, the brother who had beaten him when he caught Shane and his friend kissing. Ben, who was successful in sports, especially swimming. Ben who dismisses accusations of a young girl, that their swim trainer had assaulted her, as lies. Ben who loved the water and wanted to spend all of his time in the pool. Ben who – it breaks out of him pained – himself was assaulted and Shane watched it once. Ben, who follows Shane into the drycleaners and into his locked apartment. (I was afraid of Ben. I was actually really scared of Ben. Great work by Guymond who has only a different shirt to help create Ben.)
When Shane has reached the end of his rope, his STD spreading, his job gone, his lover Will abandoning him, he turns to Peter again. We’re mates, mates fight and are okay again – that’s what his brother taught him after all … I got an STD, a bad one. Peter’s face falls, his eyes mist up. Which one? Warts! (he says it with all the drama a 16 year old is capable of, and that is a LOT) and Peter breaks out laughing: WARTS???!!!!
He is going to go with Shane to the hospital appointment because they are friends, because they are family. And because Shane will need someone if he’s too “spasticated” from the meds. It’s what family does. And he is. Will is there, to help him into a hot salt bath after his operation, Peter is providing food and water and the bath, for that matter, and it seems that everybody has matured, has gained new insights, new perspectives on life. Will is behaving like a friend, not just a two time lover. Shane has decided to go back to school, and to face his fears and call home to make peace with Ben. And Peter, Peter had been cooking a curry, a recipy his mother had sent him years ago. Was in a kitchen drawer, fell out – purely coincidental – just one hour before the call came. Peter’s mother had died in her nursing home.
And he finally admits, to himself as much as to Shane and Will, that he was sad he couldn’t be more of a son to her. Because no matter what happened before, it is a duty – that when we are young, they take care of us, and when they are old, we take care of them. The remorse, the frustration, the sadness, all that so palpable, so real. (yes, pollen alert, my eyes teared up) And so Shane offers to come with Peter to the funeral, so that he doesn’t have to fly home alone.
Friendships forged in fire. And because of that a play that is timeless, also thanks to the beautiful rhythm of the language used, four different sets of instruments coming together in harmony.
As always, Simon Burke is amazing as Peter. It’s the little things, you know. The way he stands, walks, a gesture, his expressions, all that adds layers to his character. There’s scenes when he talks about his cat – the slut, which then vanishes, probably dies – that broke my heart. He made this character human.
I wish I could have seen it not just in Melbourne, but in Sydney as well. Damn, but it was brilliant and I loved it so much!
interview Simon Burke