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Plague Over England
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De Jongh gives us the climate of fear, persecution and prosecution that was the fate of most male homosexuals in London in the 1950s. He shows us the prejudice of the judges and the dirty tactics of the police in securing arrests.
Sir John Gielgud (Jasper Britton) is the victim of a policeman from a special entrapment squad planted to entice gay men into revealing themselves in public lavatories. The practice of picking up a stranger in a public convenience for immediate and anonymous sex is known in England as "cottaging" from the small cottage-like buildings erected as public toilets. Sir John's arrest is witnessed by a student Greg (Robin Whiting) and a later story is the developing love affair— the relationship between Greg, son of a judge, and Terry Fordham (Leon Ockendon), the pretty policeman provocateur.
The play has scenes from the legal system with the comments of everybody from the queer bashing Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (John Warnaby), the Home Secretary, through politicians and members of the judiciary to the grass roots police whose job it was to arrest these vulnerable men. The shame of being caught up in a homosexual scandal is hard to imagine today.
Gielgud gave the name Arthur to the police, his real first name, but the story is jumped on by the Evening Standard and, in a delicately vain moment, Gielgud asks why they used such an unflattering photograph of him. Britain in the mid 1950s was echoing some of the McCarthyite witch hunting of Communists and homosexuals. The defection of the spies, homosexual Guy Burgess and bisexual Donald Maclean, to Russia made the press stress the vulnerability of homosexuals to blackmail by a foreign power, in the same way as decades later there was concern about gay men being employed in the military.
Although Gielgud's is the main story, I appreciated the context it is placed in. An effective scene has Maxwell Fyfe spouting his anti-homosexual speech using the phrase "plague over England" while two men kiss and embrace. The effect is to underline the point that sexuality is about a private, loving and tender relationship between two people and should not be the subject of criminal process.
Nichola McAuliffe plays the kindly Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir John's co-star and confidante who supports him through the ordeal. (Edith Evans was apparently horrid about it.). His friend, the fictional theatre critic, maybe named for characters in Oscar Wilde's plays. Chiltern Moncrieffe (John Warnaby) is also homosexual and together they go to Queen Mab's, a West End drinking club run by Vera Dromgoole (the origin of whose name I will not speculate on) also played by Nichola McAuliffe. David Burt pops up all over the place as a gay barman at Mab's serving up blue cocktails, a lavatory attendant and other crucial but supporting roles.
Jasper Britton has slicked back his hair and studied not just Gielgud's distinctive voice but his posture as well. At the end of Act One he speaks some lines from Richard II and I could hear the cadence of Gielgud's original. We are told that Gielgud was affected for the rest of his life by the newspaper coverage of the scandal. He was the first really celebrated man to be arrested for a gay offence since Oscar Wilde in the naughty nineties. Britton's performance is unassuming and quietly likeable, upper class and repressed. Simon Dutton doubles as the Judge Percival Lightbourne who makes an about turn in his attitude towards gays by 1975, rather unconvincingly I suspect; also as the theatrical producer, Binkie Beaumont, who despite his flamboyant personality is very concerned at the effect on audiences of Sir John's arrest. But thankfully Gielgud's fans rally round the great man and his ovation when he opens in Liverpool is supportive and noisy as only the eccentric English can surprise in their support of a man down on his luck.
I shall remember Jasper Britton's acting prowess but I shall also reflect on the terrible "cure" being offered by a doctor of using electric aversion therapy to attempt to change a desperately shy civil servant Matthew Barnsbury's (Timothy Watson) sexual orientation. Tamara Harvey's production in the tiny Finborough Theatre never pales and a variety of scenes are created at speed by a carousel of hinged scene drops and the smooth entrances of waiting actors complete with their stage furniture.
De Jongh allows Gielgud's mildly homophobic admirers the optional luxury of believing that he was trapped by a policeman rather than a persistent cottager. Gielgud never took part in the gay marches of the early 1970s. A private man, he did not identify with gay pride.
Some of De Jongh's coincidences and link ups may seem unlikely but they work to create a cohesive drama with a period feel about injustice and I found his play full of variety, poignancy and flair. With religious fundamentalism attacking the rights of homosexuals and women, it's important to look at our civilising progress.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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