You can count on one hand contemporary dramas centred on the particular issue of loneliness, and its complex causes, in modern relationships between gay men. Even less are the number of such dramas which concern relationships across generations and class. Fewer still are works which have a poetic and ironic edge, a comic underbelly, a Pinteresque sense of possible violence, fractured malevolence. Le Grand Mort does all of this and adds the particular lustre of Julian Clary. Like an audacious red wine, it challenges, warms and soothes, with pungent and peppery overtones that leave you much to think about.
A fastidious, slightly effete man is preparing a meal – pasta alla puttanesca – in his pristine A-Gay kitchen, stainless steel and smooth surfaces everywhere. With calm precision, like a kind of galloping gay gourmet, he chops vegetables, empties dishes, loads the dishwasher, sets the table and amuses himself by speaking aloud, occasionally winking or sashaying to emphasise a nuanced entendre, double or triple. With timing that gleams like the carefully arranged wine glasses or the pristine collection of razor sharp knives, he cooks and prepares.
He ponders the nature of orgasm and cogitates about the relationship between illness and ejaculation, the link between death and unforgettable climax, and speculates about necrophilia. There are tawdry rhymes and occasional puns and belly laughs.
He is expecting a dinner guest. A man he has met earlier. He is tense, concerned, on edge, unsure. Is he talking to steady his nerves or solidify his resolve? Is he planning seduction or murder – or both? And in what order? And does it matter?
This is Stephen Clark’s Le Grand Mort, a new play written as a vehicle for Julian Clary, having its premiere season at Trafalgar Studios 2 in a production elegently and cripsly directed by Christopher Renshaw. It is a play with an apparently superficial and trite appeal, boosted by the presence of the deeply refined Clary, with all that anticipates and promises, and the cocky, brash freshness of James Nelson-Joyce’s sexy superbrat character, Tim. But that is not its real virtue.
Clark has quite a lot to say about the stark solitude of modern homosexual existence. He hides dark thoughts and cutting insights under a tsunami of genitalia references and off jokes about sex with dead people. Partly, he does this to satirise the way some people equate homosexuality with aberrant or deviant behaviour; partly, he makes the point that although some progress has been made in terms of acceptance and tolerance, the fact is that much of mainstream society knows nothing about, nor cares to know about, gay romance or ritual and even less about gay attraction. And even less about gay inter-generational cross-class romances of the type which fuel hetero-normative classics from The Sound Of Music to Pygmalion and pretty much any 21st cinema blockbuster.
It would be easy to dismiss Le Grand Mort as a failed black comedy. Except, it is not that at all. The narrative is wrapped in all manner of expected stereotypes and tropes but at its heart is a blistering truth: it is difficult for two men to find love and happiness together in the 21st Century because everything – society, their friends, their families, their dreams – conspires against it. Extremity of behaviour is regarded as a hook necessary to permit hook up.
The effect of Clark’s writing is compelling. Like a pair of silky black gloves, his words charm and beguile, seem comforting and familiar; but then, unaccountably, you feel those gloved hands strangling you. It feels like fun, but pain and grief are earnestly intertwined with every raised eyebrow, every pressed kiss, every pointed barb. Footprints of agony are everywhere. The games these characters play, the jokes they make, the tales they spin – they are just show. The bitterness, the solitude, the ache of life – that is what compels the encounter between Clary’s Michael and Nelson-Joyce’s Tim.
Justin Nardella’s extraordinary set heightens the tarantella the two characters dance. At once brutal and homely, articsic and spartan, sterile and fertile, the space he has created in the small confines at Studio 2 is terrifically tough, robustly real, stylishly sardonic. Jamie Platt’s lighting is blisteringly effective, shadows and depth of visual spectrum enhancing the deadly dance that plays out. It is difficult to imagine this play looking or feeling better than it does here. Ed Lewis’s Bach inspired sound design ices an impressive production cake.
A modern version of Da Vinci’s Virtuvian Man dominates, adding an aesthetic abdusdity to domestic ordinariness. Like most of the elements here, that piece comes into its own in a singular theatrical moment which all but defines the hedonistic extremities of the thrills sought by Tim’s generation. The sharp exactitude of his probably German kitchen knives, which we see cut and dice effectively, proves key to Michael’s more controlled, less emotive, architect professional self. What will Michael do with his knives and what will it mean for Tim, whose propensity for naked assuredess trumps Michael’s assumed intellectual superiority. Is being sure of your self smarter, better, wiser than being sure of who you are?
Clary is quite wonderful as Michael, no trace of the glittery camp extremity for which he has become famous. His particular style of delivery is in play, and he uses that skilfully, to put the audience at ease and to make incisive points. Unlike Nathan Lane in Angels In America, though, Clary finds a way to subvert his familiar persona to the ends of the character. Michael is realistically terrible, trapped, tortured and tired. Desperate for someone to touch and love. At whatever cost, even death.
Nelson-Joyce is a revelation as the brash, trim, taut and terrific Tim – his body as exposed as the brittle rawness of his broken character. He is impressive in every way; not just absurdly physically attractive but intellectually astute and with an eccentric acuity that is as sharp as Michael’s German knives.
Each actor deals with the expected characteristics of his character and exposes the unexpected with clarity and grace. Clary’s difficult relationship with his mother speaks for many, just as Nelson-Joyce’s burnt first love cripples him. When you realise that either would be happy if the other killed them or made love to them, and it probably doesn’t matter which, you understand the dichotomy that fuels Clark’s intent. Silly stories about Herodotus, Marilyn Monroe and King Tut have a common thread – the taboo that does not dare speak its name. Even in the 21st Century.
Refreshing, confronting and compellingly truthful, Le Grand Mort is a minor marvel. It won’t appeal to everyone, but if you let its tune play for you, you will dance along to its insistent beat for some time, and you will always remember how it reminded you of things about you had never considered. But surely should have.