Mates & Lovers

BATS Theatre, Wellington

24/09/2009 - 03/10/2009

Production Details

"Mates & Lovers includes the stories of individual men – their trials, tribulations and sheer determination to make their way in a sometimes unsympathetic society. It will translate into compelling theatre. Ronald Trifero Nelson is skilled at capturing the essence of human situations and emotions and projecting them onto the stage, and I know he’ll do a fabulous job with the book’s life stories. I can’t wait to see the show!" – Chris Brickell

The production’s poster image is a recreation of the 1888 photo which adorns the cover of the original book. "Like the book’s author, Chris Brickell, I recognised several things about it. Their knees are touching. They’re sitting on the chairs back-to-front, perfectly framing their crotches. In the original photo there was a Roman column. All these aspects make you wonder about the guys’ relationship." – Ronald Trifero Nelson from a article by Matt Akersten.

Mates & Lovers 
Season: Thursday 24 September – Saturday 3 October (no show Sun/Mon)
Time: 9pm
Tickets: $18 full / $13 concession / $16 groups (6+)
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Performed by:
Sam McLeod & Kent Seaman

A romp through history

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 28th Sep 2009

Ronald Trifero Nelson has adapted Chris Brickell’s recent book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand and he has created a sleek, revue-like docudrama that traces gay life in this country from the times of Captain Cook to the present day.

On a bare stage and with only two chairs and the occasional change of costumes as supports, and aided by Wendy Clease’s low-key lighting, Sam McLeod and Kent Seaman give first-rate performances in an unbroken sequence of snapshots (literally and metaphorically) of gay life in Aotearoa.

The snapshots are often funny, occasionally crude, moving, and always pointedly direct whether it is an American soldier during the war meeting up on "Victoria Mountain" in Wellington with a "May-ori" who has seen Gone with the Wind too many times or a young man at the beginning of last century fascinated by Greek myths and discovering Oscar Wilde’s life and works as well as his own sexuality.

The Homosexual Law Reform Bill is mentioned in passing as is AIDS which is encapsulated in a brief, beautifully underwritten and touchingly performed scene that for me was the highlight of the production. One of the songs, which might be called Manslaughter, is in the more traditional satirical revue style but no less effective for that in its angry humour, while the wartime Kiwi Concert Party sequence is pure camp.

Despite one scene of an angry man demanding his rights as a citizen the rest of the scenes are blessedly free from righteous indignation and crude portraits of homophobic rednecks. The performance begins and ends with McLeod and Seaman performing a dance that is a powerful celebration of love rather than the more usual demands for moral and legal justice.

However, it probably helps at times to have read Chris Brickell’s book as there are some scenes which are hard to follow as we are given little or no background but are plunged straight into the events. And dramatic as the events of  the Mayor of Wanganui and the poet D’Arcy Cresswell’s sensational encounter were, as well Cresswell’s later suicide, we do need a bit of a lead-in, if like me you are ignorant of their story. There’s a full-length play here surely?
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Hitherto hidden history brought to light with sensitivity and humour

Review by John Smythe 25th Sep 2009

Two guys in a bare space with two chairs and simple clothing, which they slip in and out of countless times, traverse 140-odd years of gay male history in NZ within 80 minutes. Kent Seaman and Sam McLeod work with an assured fluency that belies the effort they and writer /director Ronald Trifero Nelson have put into bringing Chris Brickell’s award-winning book, or parts of it, to life (the sumptuous tome runs at 377 pages of illustrated text).

Mates and Lovers, the play, opens and closes with a vigorous yet eloquent pas de deux (choreographed by John Butterfield) which recalls the callisthenics that allowed men to express and celebrate their physicality even when they had had to be furtive about their homosexuality because society at large denied it. The way Seaman and McLeod navigate their ways through the multiple roles, situations, circumstances and actions that follow feels like and extension of the dance.

Although it’s a bit like the theatrical equivalent of flicking through Brickell’s book, immersing yourself in various moments without always understanding exactly where the events are occurring, or to whom, the physical and emotional truths of the moments we glimpse are made vivid and compelling.

The chronological unfolding sets out a story that started long before an exploring Englishman (Joseph Banks, was it?) opined upon "the Māori vice of sodomy" in 1770 and will continue until the end of time. But the essences preserved in these decades cover most of the bases.

"All Europeans are at this until they are married," says someone in 1828. But by 1882 their "sexual perversion" sees them treated as insane. The recurring motif of a photograph – used on the cover of the book and simulated on the play’s poster and programme as well as in the action – shows how the "pure and ardent love" that dare not speak its name is conveyed in the semiotics of touching knees and crotches framed in back-to-front chairs.

Sometimes the production’s sketchy touch throws more shadow than light on events. A murky scene involving Chinese voices takes too long to say nothing more than Chines can be gay too. And am I right to infer that the Mayor of Wanganui, Charles Mackay, arranges a gay assignation for the Prince of Wales when he visits in 1920? A quick trip to the library to skim Brickell’s book finds no mention of this but that is what I think I saw.

In the scene that follows, would-be poet and playwright D’Arcy Cresswell provokes the gay mayor into making a move then threatens to expose him unless he resigns, whereupon McKay shoots him (not fatally). On checking this out in Brickell – and in Michael King’s History of New Zealand (pp 376-7) which Brickell refers to – I discover Cresswell was put up to it by the RSA (disgruntled at being prevented from welcoming the prince themselves), he didn’t disclose he was gay himself at the attempted murder trial, and the judge – Sir Robert Stout no less – declared "no blame could be attached to [him] and the action he took would be commended by all right-thinking men."

While I appreciate the play is only attempting a ‘tasting menu’, given it ends with recent examples of ‘homosexual panic’ being used as a ruse to reduce charges of murder to manslaughter, I’d have thought that this part of ‘the Wanganui affair’ would be worth including, both for the irony and to help strengthen a dramatic structure that feels disparate and episodic at times.

Also, because changes of character from scene to scene is the norm, I fail to realise (until I refer to King; I couldn’t find it in Brickell) that the journalist in Berlin circa 1929 to cover the Communist Party’s May Day activities, who notes "men of my nature have become ordinary over here" and who gets shot dead by a policeman who mistakes him as "a filthy Bolshevik", is actually Charles Mackay. While I commend Nelson for researching beyond his primary text, he has yet to mine to full dramatic potential of the treasures he has extracted.

Otherwise there is poignancy in a boarding school boy from Taihape trying to reconcile Greek and Roman mythology with the real world in which he has to function; delicious humour in a US Serviceman’s ‘Victoria Mountain’ encounter with a Māori male nurse; delight in the juxtaposition of a soldier in the desert doing Judy Garland with a drag artiste decades later hating that song and demanding his rights; shock at the ‘therapies’ imposed by medical science; identification with the campaign for homosexual law reform …  

A naked bath scene that touches with great sensitivity and subtlety on HIV-AIDS offers but one of the many memorable and often haunting images created by Nelson, Seaman, McLeod and lighting designer Wendy Clease. An unconscious and rigid Seaman being rocked from side-to-side like a metronome needle by McLeod’s psycho surgeon is another.

Accepting the adage "always leave them wanting more", Mates and Lovers succeeds in evoking a hitherto hidden strand of our history and whetting our appetites. I hope the bookshops are well stocked (all but the reference copy of Brickell’s book were out on loan from the Wellington Central library today).
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Book your tickets because you won't want to miss this

Review by Sarah Helm 25th Sep 2009

An accessible journey into the history of gay and bisexual men in our land of milk and honey, this 80 minute theatrical journey magically progresses you through the decades since early colonisation. Two beautiful and convincing actors are your history guides, with only two chairs and some flimsy clothing to aid their recreation of sensitive, amusing, and significant moments of our gay whakapapa. The trip will make you laugh out loud, rise to anger and want to cry.

It sounded pretty unlikely – an award-winning non-fiction book being turned into an engaging piece of theatre. History book? Dull. But Ronald Nelson, writer, producer and director, has triumphed. This play is masterful. He was assisted by a small team of people. The work of the choreographer John Butterfield and lighting designer Wendy Clease have clearly added to the enchantment the audience feel as they tour through at least thirty vignettes of gay men’s lives. [More]
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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