The Pride plays at Trafalgar Studios in London from August 8 – November 9. By Alexi Kaye Campbell, directed by Jamie Lloyd.
So if you’re thinking to yourself, “wow, Jodi really hasn’t reviewed very much stuff this month, especially considering last year during the Sydney Fringe she was routinely reviewing three shows a night – I wonder what’s going on there?” let me explain: I’m overseas! I’m in the UK doing academic things, and so sadly have missed the entire Sydney Fringe (as well as the Sydney mainstage shows for the month of September). But I have been seeing some things in the UK, and when I see things, I write about them, so here goes.
A good friend of mine brought me along to see The Pride, and helpfully explained to me the background of the company. Young wunderkind director Jamie Lloyd has engaged the (relatively small, by West End standards) space at the Trafalgar Studios for a whole season – the ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season – in an effort to enliven an area in danger of being drowned by musicals. The Pride follows his revival of Macbeth (starring James McAvoy) and The Hothouse (starring Simon Russell Beale), and has its own star drawcard in Hayley Atwell. It is a revival – if you can call a play that first went on in 2008 a “revival” – of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, which first played at the Royal Court.
To describe the problem I had with this play, I must first briefly describe the plot. There are two separate stories woven together here: one, of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Sylvia (Atwell), a married couple in the 1950s, and Sylvia’s colleague and collaborator Oliver (Al Weaver). Weaver is quietly gay in an era where this could lead to prosecution under “gross indecency” laws, and Philip is horrified at the attraction he has towards him. The second story includes the same triangle, but it is set in the present day. Weaver’s Oliver has an addiction to anonymous sex and being dominated (in one especially memorable scene, he hires a rent boy whom he asks to dress as a Nazi), which has ruined his relationship with his ex Philip. His only emotional support is his friend Sylvia, to whom he clings far too tightly for it to be healthy.
On their own, there is nothing wrong with either of these stories. Both are engaging – enthralling, even, in some moments – and independently, would make awesome plays. However, when you read them together, read them against each other, some really problematic things begin to bubble to the surface. The parallels have implications that I really don’t think are intended. The most obvious of these is locating the 1950s social imperative for gay men to be closeted against the modern Oliver’s promiscuity. The blurb for the show says that “societal repression gives way to self-deception”, but... why? Why must the gay man who was trapped by his society in the 1950s be trapped by his own mind in the modern period? The modern Oliver is clearly meant to be portrayed as mentally ill, and that seems to suggest that the 50s Oliver would also be that way if he wasn’t socially compelled to be repressed. Which leads to a very troubling place. So...
The other consequence of the parallel stories is Atwell’s character, Sylvia: specifically, that she doesn’t get to have much of a character. Despite the fact she has star billing, she seems to exist only to provide the role of emotional support. This seems to be especially true of the 1950s Sylvia, who behaves very strangely at times – just once, I wanted her to get angry, but she is entirely selfless. You’d think that if your husband slept with someone else, you’d be pretty angry no matter who it was, but she is disarmingly Zen about the whole thing: a little sad, but not much beyond that. Similarly, modern day Sylvia is defined almost entirely by her friendship with Oliver. Her strongest moments are when she is torn between being his friend and her new relationship with Italian boyfriend Mario, but the fact that said boyfriend is never seen onstage is, I think, telling. This character is underwritten and in many ways, sacrificed to the narrative.
I actually quite enjoyed The Pride, although it might not sound like it from this review. Lloyd is obviously a great director. Playwright Campbell excels in writing vignettes, something which he has turned to his advantage in this picaresque play. But I feel like some of the implications have really not been thought through all the way. In the curtain call, the actors come out with signs that say, “To Russia, with love”. This is an awesome sentiment, but this play isn’t exactly an anti-homophobic call to arms. Obviously, this is not to say that the play is homophobic. I don’t think it is, at all. Nor should any non-homophobic depiction of gay characters have to be some great activist call: theatre should and needs to be more complex and nuanced than a for/against binary. But considering the problematic implications of some of the story parallels, the “To Russia, with love” signs seemed a little bit... I’m not even sure how to phrase it. Incongruous?