Play review: Mates and Lovers

Adapted by Ronald Trifero Nelson from a script by Chris Brickell, review by Workers Party member James Froch

Having significantly evolved since it last showed at Bats in 2009, a new production of Mates and Lovers is back in Wellington as part of the second Asia-Pacific Out Games.  This celebration of the modern gay identity is Ronald Nelson’s second adaptation of Chris Brickell’s well- known catalogue of men’s sometimes platonic and sometimes sexual relationships with other men.

Having cut, extended and added some scenes—particularly enjoyable was the addition of the young Chris Brickell’s personal experiences during homosexual law reform –this production was more successful than its predecessor at transforming desperate individual stories separated by centuries, geography, ethnicity and class into a single narrative.

Much credit for the easy physical transitions between scenes is due to Taiaroa Royal’s clever choreography.  Particularly creative was the transformation of the two lone actors (Paora Taurima and Simon Leary) into chorus girls, and their shirts into halter tops, during the musical numbers often used to move into a new scene.  The playful gender transgressions added yet another layer of gaiety to the already quite gay piece of theatre.

On a more serious note, the most poignant moments of Mates and Lovers surrounded the frequent re-creation of the image used by Brickell as the cover of his book, the two men with a dog in-between their touching knees.  Brickell described the image as a source of ambiguity about the nature of male relationships before the creation and expression of a gay identity.  How did men express love for each other in the past?  Were they just mates or are they lovers?  The domesticity and intimacy of the image forces one to read much into the relationship between the two men.  And seeing that simple photograph
come to life, imbued with the real stories of men, with the real tenderness of their love, was powerfully touching as it united each story into the grander narrative.

But while the production poetically expressed the beauty of the modern gay identity, it did so in places it should not, forcing the shallowest aspects of this identity onto men of the past, often for solely humorous effect.  Characters separated by centuries, each from a different social class, each with their own conception of gender, morality and role in society were all dramatized, nearly exclusively, as two-dimensional camp gay men.  This became less of a problem as the stories moved towards the post-war 20th century when that identity began to reach ascendancy.  But as one of the first stories told by Mates & Lovers was of an English missionary and a series of young Maori boys circa 1870 it failed to do justice to most of the men’s lives.  Mates & Lovers falls far short of its promise to tell the intimate stories of men from the beginning of European colonisation, rather telling a modern story though their words.

But while it fails as a piece of history, Mates & Lovers thrives as a piece of theatre.  Clever, mischievous, amusing and tender it is well worth the visit.

Mates and Lovers ran from the 8th to the 12th of March at Wellington’s
Downstage and will run from the 26th to the 30th at Dunedin’s Fortune

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