The Fluidity of Identity

THE BOYS IN THE BAND by Matt Crowley, directed by Adam Penfold, with Mark Gatiss & Ian Hallard, Theatre Royal Brighton, Tues 8th Nov, 7.45pm.

This is by any measure a really good play. Good because it does well what theatre does best, reveal those unspoken, unexamined assumptions about our private, personal and public identities, those straitjackets, those self-imposed limitations, those mind-forged manacles which we all embrace with more or less enthusiasm in order to get through the day.

Theatre contains an implicit paradox - it is the most artificial of art forms, the most dissembling, the most fake, but because of that, the most real, the most honest, the most scarifying. Actors can play anybody, be anyone. They can be kings and queens (wink, wink), women can be men, men can be women and audiences know this. The audience too can transform. They can become ‘the audience’, assuming collectively a completely new public identity, utterly different from any other audience but, at the same time, the same, transitive, plastic, but at once comfortingly familiar.

Identity, that is identity in real life, changes moment to moment, depending on the circumstances, the surroundings, public or private, or the space between. We can be alone alone, or alone with others, or with others who are alone. Or we can be with those who make us feel more alone than ever, an aloneness which we fear we’ll never shake off.

I think I might be losing you now.

The Boys in the Band is only a couple of years short of turning 50. And it’s completely smack up to date. It’s probably, or maybe certainly, every playwright’s dream to stumble onto that perfect conceit, the ideal theatrical concept which links the story in some way to the actual situation of actors on a stage, a flawless mirror, reality and artifice in an interactive dance.

The scene is Michael’s flat in Manhattan. It’s late sixties expectation to the back teeth, exposed brick, photos of Judy Garland and Billie Holliday and cheap furniture. Michael is holding a party for a friend and has invited a number of guests. As the actors arrive they, of course, assume their roles. We can imagine them in the wings, preparing, getting into character, exactly as the characters do. (We simultaneously see the imaginary characters coming up in an imaginary lift, putting on their party faces, two scenes co-existing.)

The party is an artificial, organised, social situation, exactly like the play, and the characters, just like the actors, play the roles expected of them. With one notable exception: Michael’s friend from college, Alan, calls unexpectedly and asks if he can come over as he’s in New York.

College is years in the past and Alan now has a wife and two daughters. The reason for his call is mysterious, but he duly arrives and finds himself in the middle of the celebrations, an all male situation he clearly finds intimidating.

It’s very possible, indeed certain, that some members of those audiences in 1968, just like audiences in 2016, would have found, and still find, the situation playing out on stage similarly intimidating and confronting (though funny too of course). In exactly the same way that a fictional someone, dropped unceremoniously into a gentlemen’s club in Mayfair, may find the surroundings intimidating (and maybe not so funny).

Camp can be a performance, as can masculinity, as can the accoutrements of class. Is it dishonest to hide the truth of your nature beneath an outward performance? Or must the outward performance match the inward nature? Or is honesty located somewhere else entirely?

What the theatre shows, in every living moment, is the fluidity of identity. This is honest. What is dishonest, dangerous even, is when identity is considered fixed and immutable, either for reasons of morality, or for an easy life, or financial imperatives or any of a thousand other motivations and excuses.

Parenthetically, today Donald Trump was elected President of the USA! A Twitter President. There is a danger, I think, that social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook etc. structured around your online identity, can tend to make that identity a fixed reality. We can end up trapped in a self we didn’t ask for or want. This is destructive. The US, especially, is predicated on the possibility of reinvention, of change, of the freedom from a rigid social order.

Trump is in all our futures now I guess, but this production, with its open hearted generosity, was a breath of fresh air, a joyous, rewarding antidote to an anxious time. Paradoxically (again) the better the actors perform their roles, and they were brilliant, funny and warm, the more we believe in the underlying honesty of their performance, that there is a real person in there making real connections. And there was a freedom and lightness which seemed authentically American.

The ensemble of actors was uniformly strong but I have to mention Ian Hallard, who plays Michael. His character’s journey is complex and potentially alienating. It would be so easy for the audience not to trust his motives, not to have sympathy for his actions, indeed not to understand why he acts as he does. That never happened. We were with him at every turn, appalled but understanding. His disgust at his own actions, at his compromises and misjudgements, was a very moving pas de deux of artifice and reality.

Paul Corcoran