Unfortunately, We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary couldn’t come at a more fitting time. Donald Trump is dangling an anti-LGBT executive order over America’s head like Damocles’ sword, the United Kingdom is deporting gay asylum seekers and gentrification is forcing the closure of many formerly iconic queer venues across the city. While the play is set in the eighties, it shines a bright light on the modern day.
Michael and Joseph are good friends who share big dreams. Michael wants to be a DJ; Joseph to light Cats the musical. They also share troubled responses from their families about their homosexuality. They are friends, wingmen and become business partners, when Michael lures Joseph away from lighting fading drag act Brandi to Paul’s club, The Market, where he’s hoping to score a gig. They spend the next three years working together – Michael on the decks, Joseph creating light shows.
London changes around them. The AIDS epidemic begins. Shadows start to appear in the places people used to be. Attitudes don’t change – if anything, they get worse. Capitalism takes its hold on the gay scene and Joseph is lured once more by Michael to a larger, more well-known club where he feels they will become the stars they are destined to be.
Things don’t go to plan and relationships rupture. Three more years pass and the epidemic has made its way into the circle of once-friends. Paul passes away and his club must be sold – but what’s to be done with the proceeds? As one chapter ends, what – if anything – is the next one to start?
We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary is an interesting and important play that exemplifies Inky Cloak’s goal of making theatre about “people who have the courage to live on their own terms”. It grapples with weighty issues that are both time-sensitive and seemingly everlasting, as well as providing much needed stage time to intersectional queer lives and stories.
The piece has great and honourable intentions however misses the mark and takes a long time getting there. The overall effect feels a little like cart dragging horse: the socio-political agenda of the piece – the “issue”, the reason for its being – feels far too close to the surface, to the detriment of the development of individual characters. Sympathy is difficult when the piece so consciously uses each character as a predictable pawn in its narrative. Liveness is another sticking point.
The near omnipresence of two male dancers onstage underlines the corporality and temporality of both human and club experience however the impact and importance of queer spaces, and the effect of their closure, is recounted solely in anecdote. Rather than showing us the resilience of a queer house party attacked by the BNP, we are simply told about it.
The piece’s largest flaw is its energy. There is no crescendo. We are never truly immersed, sound and lighting are underexploited, scenes drag and so do transitions. A generous edit could be applied (or more content and an interval added) and scenes actually set at the height of a blaring club night would prove both artistically interesting and provide much needed contrast from the repeated routine of duologue then dance.
There is, however, a lot to praise in the production. Ingrid Hu’s colourful and multi-levelled tetris style set doubles as runways and cloakrooms, DJ booths and dance floors. No setting is improbable as we are lifted out of the realm of verisimilitude and the actors move around the space beautifully. The cabaret, semi-thrust configuration of the room evokes a club atmosphere and is sympathetic to the Albany’s slightly unusual layout.
The dancers, while slightly out of sync, create bold, beautiful, angular and unique movements. Although the synergy of and symbiosis between dance and straight scenes is not quite yet ironed out, the routines are aptly used to progress and reflect narrative. Acting performances are sufficient however real emotion is rarely conveyed – perhaps the actors struggled to connect emotionally to the characters too.
This piece should be bursting with the unexpected. The loud. The shocking. The dirty and divine. Those things that define the avant-garde LGBT performance scene. Instead, We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary provides a sanitised, academic and passive account of this history of this beautiful mess. Underdeveloped and overlong, the piece sets out to show – unfortunately it only ever tells.