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Hilton Edwards and
Micheál MacLiammóir were two of the most important figures in twentieth century Irish
theatre. Edwards was best known as a producer and director and MacLiammóir an actor,
although he was also a designer, writer, and director in his own right. In 1928 Edwards
and MacLiammóir co-founded the Gate Theatre. Their intention was that the venue would
stage important works of contemporary European theatre. The co-founders wanted to offer
Irish audiences an alternative to the more traditional fare produced at the Abbey Theatre,
home of Yeats, Synge, and OCasey. The Gate was therefore willing to take risks on
works by the likes of Ibsen, Chekov, and Zola, and was drawn to unexpected and offbeat
readings of classic Shakespeare.
Edwards and MacLiammóir also embodied the ideals of the alternative in
their choice of lifestyle. They were openly gay in a society which did not decriminalize
homosexuality until the 1990s. Though their lives in theatre shielded them from
substantial prejudice, Dublin wags were quick to nickname the Gate and the Abbey
"Sodom and Begorrah" in recognition of their respective repertoires.
MacLiammóir was also a champion of Oscar Wilde, another gay Irishman whose work received
new and controversial stagings at the Gate, including the first English language
production of Salome.
Donald Taylor Blacks recent documentary Dear Boy: The Story
of Micheál MacLiammóir explored the extent to which MacLiammóir used the theatre
as an elaborate mask for his various identities. Born in England to well-to-do parents, he
reinvented himself as an Irishman and immersed himself in roleplay to a point at which his
very sexuality seemed subsumed by half-truths and camp performances which partly displayed
and partly hid who he really was.
Frank McGuinness Gates of Gold works similar imagery
through a dramatic story. Because its characters are so clearly inspired by real people,
the play runs the risk of triggering too many associations with actuality and awkwardly
collapsing into the perception that it is a dramatized documentary. Fortunately, Gates
of Gold is a touching, lovingly written story about complex emotional and
psychological relationships between vividly drawn individuals. The blend of larger than
life theatrics and quieter, more intimate moments of revelation proves to be a perfect
blend of form and content.
The story follows the last days of a MacLiammóir-like actor/designer
named Gabriel (Alan Howard). He is cared for by a no-nonsense nurse, Alma (Donna Dent),
who is paid for by Gabriels long-suffering lover, Conrad (Richard Johnson).
Gabriels equally theatrical sister, Kassie (Rosaleen Linehan) drops by from time to
time, along with her bitchy gay son, Ryan (James Kennedy). Gabriel, Conrad, and Kassie
share an affinity for invention. Their semi-apocryphal stories of life and love inform
their understanding of one another. Though Gabriel is angry and dying, he is not above
playing the provocateur and drama queen when it suits him, and he is as wont to chide his
patient lover as express genuine affection for him.
Alma initially seems to find herself displaced in this world. Her
mordant realism, informed by years of caring for the dying and by her own tragic past, is
itself peppered with elements of willful self-deception. She develops a new perspective on
herself in dealing with these people, most particularly Gabriel. As the story unfolds, the
audience is invited to share the subtle confrontation of emotion which transpires.
Gates of Gold is delicately written; the language is fluid and
poetic, and the dialogue exchanges are appropriately elliptical but not obscure. The
characters relate in believable ways even though the thematic concern with lies and
half-truths sometimes clouds the storytelling. McGuinness personal commitment to
this subject is evident, and the play is both moving and thought-provoking.
The Gates production has added resonance given its relationship
with the venue itself, but Joe Vaneks set is effective on its own terms.
McGuinness script calls for the simultaneous staging of parallel scenes to portray
the interrelationships between two sets of conversations. Vaneks set neatly divides
the space into two rooms which focus attention on the actors, keeping props to a
decorative minimum while still suggesting a domestic flamboyance befitting its characters
(a huge portrait of the two men decorates one rear wall). Only at the climax does the
space between the rooms dissolve, allowing actors to cross from one side to the other
without exiting at the rear.
The performances are obviously central here, and director Patrick Mason
has brought out a modulated range in each of his actors. Howard balances the inevitable
camp excesses of his character with more somber indications of gradual physical decline.
Johnson is more understated but equally effective in portraying a man of this age in this
kind of relationship. Dent also succeeds in evading cliche in her characterization,
although Linehan and Kennedy do not.
Dublin, May 10,