Sodom and begorrah

Michael Billington is enthralled by a play about Irish theatre's debt to two gay Englishmen

"The one duty we owe to history," said Oscar Wilde, "is to rewrite it." And Frank McGuinness has done just that in Gates of Gold, a play inspired by the two expatriate Englishmen and longtime lovers, Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, who founded the Gate theatre in Dublin in 1930. The play is anything but straight biography. It is more a meditation, alternately comic and elegiac, on gay marriage, the evanescence of theatre and the need to face death with whatever panache one can muster.

McGuinness calls his twin heroes Gabriel and Conrad. The former is a flamboyant actor, the latter a tweedily sedate director.

Conrad and Gabriel

Gabriel is visibly dying but, although confined to his bed, he sports a Japanese kimono, toupee and full make-up, and treats his last exit as another histrionic performance. With camp hilarity he announces: "Dying is really like being stuck in a traffic jam in Limerick." He eagerly quizzes his nurse Alma about her tragic family history. And he rails constantly at his lifelong partner for his professional shortcomings ("You couldn't direct my cock out of a paperbag") and for having betrayed him through loving him.

On one level, the play resembles a high-spirited Irish version of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser. Like Harwood's play it celebrates a vanished age of outsize performance and enjoys a complex relationship with fact. Just as Harwood's "Sir" was inspired by Wolfit but ultimately transcended him, so Gabriel is based on MacLiammoir but becomes an epitome of a florid theatrical gaiety that disappeared with the Coward-Novello-Gielgud era. Asked by his nurse if he ever went to bed with a woman, Gabriel announces with the hauteur of Lady Bracknell: "In my day it was never done."

But McGuinness is not simply writing a paean to the past. He is also exploring the symbiotic link between gayness and theatre. At one point, Conrad recalls that the pioneering youthful dream of himself and Gabriel was that "we shall conceive a child in Sodom". That is exactly what MacLiammoir and Edwards did. The oldest Dublin theatre joke is that, with the Gate devoted to a gay fin-de-siècle aesthetic and the Abbey to rural Irish naturalism, the city's two playhouses ofered a choice between "Sodom and Begorrah". But theatre itself, McGuinness implies, becomes for gay men and women a surrogate form of procreation: the only tragedy lies in the medium's inherent impermanence.

Clearly McGuinness is fascinated by the idea of inheritance, both artistic and emotional. But, in exploring what we mean by it, he introduces too many unresolved plot strands. Still, he has come up with one of his best plays, a moving meditation on the transcience of love, life and theatre - and a declaration that the "rigmarole" is still worth it.

He has also written a real actors' piece and gets two star performances. Alan Howard brilliantly satirises the heroic style of which he was a notable latterday exponent. Cushioned in splendour, he lends the most mundane remark a Shakespearean resonance. Even more crucially, he conveys Gabriel's capacity for self-mockery. "No one," he cries, turning down an impossible request, "would attempt to climb the Matterhorn in high-heels," before adding with a twinkle, "except possibly me." Yet beneath Howard's rhetorical bravura, you sense a genuine fear of death.

He is excellently partnered by Richard Johnson as Conrad, who conveys quiet, enduring love in the teeth of endless, exasperating provocation. It is heartening to see McGuinness returning to the form of Observe the Sons of Ulster. This is a fine play not just about Irish theatre's profound debt to two queer Englishmen but about the urge to defeat death by leaving our fingerprints on posterity.

Michael Billington.

The Guardian, 4.5.02.


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