“It’s a gay odyssey,” says Selina Cartmell, Director of both the Gate Theatre and its latest production, Once Before I Go. Written by Philly McMahon, perhaps best-known as co-creator of the sensational RIOT!, the play marks the re-opening of the Gate 18 months after going dark.
We meet in early September, after a day of rehearsals for the cast and creative team. Masks are visible, distance maintained, but there’s a buzz in the air. “Opening the theatre is hugely emotional,” says Selina. “To have audiences cross the threshold of the Gate’s space again, to open to an audience who are going to sit — in a very socially distanced way — and experience and watch something together as a community is pretty exciting.”
Once Before I Go had been in the works before the Gate was forced to close its doors. Commissioned in 2019, the play has finally found a suitable place in the Gate’s programme as it welcomes audiences back. “It’s the biggest joyous, love bomb of a play that’s about love persevering, and survival against all odds,” says Selina. “That’s something that I felt was really relevant now as well coming back out into the world. It felt like the right thing to be opening the Gate with.”
The play spans almost 40 years of queer life across Dublin, London, and Paris, opening with friends Lynn and Daithí meeting after 25 years. “When we meet them, there’s beef,” tells Philly. “We are in the territory where things have got to be investigated and unravelled. And so we go time traveling in some senses, and look back on their lives and the friendships that they had over 30 years. The play is fundamentally about that friendship, and we start peeling away layers of them.
“It’s a celebration of queer community, it’s a celebration of queer family: the idea that, more than other tribes, we create our families because often we have run from our own families. These people in this play have built their own family and so it’s a gorgeous celebration of that, plus the messiness of who we are.”
Much has happened over the span that the play encompasses, and Once Before I Go doesn’t shy away from the incredible change that has taken place in Irish society. “I was interested to look at how the Irish gay civil rights movement, the magic and energy of that and all those gorgeous stories that I have been told, how all of that built towards marriage equality,” explains Philly. “And then I was interested in post-marriage equality. We’ve been talking about Irish society thinking ‘right, marriage equality, the gays are fixed,’ but actually there’s a lot of unresolved trauma.
“The play, which is a dry comedy in some senses, is looking to pull the plaster off that trauma and look at what’s under there and what are the current concerns. So, you know, we’re looking at addiction in gay men, and we’re looking at Trans issues, and we’re looking at where this community, this family, is now. And using the AIDS crisis and the gay civil rights movement as a kickoff for all of that. With jokes!”
With so much to cover, I ask Selina about the research involved in putting on such an ambitious production. “I think that for a lot of people, myself included, after 18 months you’re stretching muscles you haven’t stretched in a long time, and so there’s a fear to that; a fear of coming back and what that’s going to be like, a fear of touch, a fear of wearing masks, and proximity, and getting tested, there’s a whole different ritual that comes with this,” she explains. “I’m lucky enough to be collaborating with a great design team, so everyone goes off and does their own research.
“In many ways, the challenge of the Gate is that we have no big wings, or big flies or traps or anything like that. What [set designer] Francis O’Connor has created, which I think is a marvel, is these three different periods across 40 years with a really bold, expressionistic time machine, in a way that can accommodate where we can go to from Dublin to Paris to London, from 1987 to present day. I think that gesture unlocked a lot of ideas for the show and how to tell that through costume and in other ways. It’s very bold, audaciously bold!”
Philly must have had to do a lot of research too, to cover such an expanse? “I’ve lived my life, active research: The George, Pantibar, Front Lounge!” he laughs. “I did a show with Tonie Walsh, in 2018, called I Am Tonie Walsh. We were wondering how were we going to make that show, and I decided that we were going to go into a room for two weeks, and I would just record the whole thing. He told me his life story, and told me a few other people’s life stories as well. And I was just like, holy shit, there are all of these stories that in some ways are oral histories, and there’s new information or a new angle every time.
“So I was trying some ways to grab some of those stories, those moments, even just the atmosphere to try to represent the vividness of queer community and queer family. This show owes Tonie a lot, and it is dedicated to Tonie. And along with that, a lot of storytelling from friends, and trawling, trawling, that World Wide Web.”
While an overview of Irish queer history is known by, or at least familiar to, an increasing proportion of Irish society, it still feels rare to see a mainstream establishment like the Gate select to highlight an original Irish queer story. More broadly though, over the last few years, the number of more regional stories (particularly those set outside America) has been on the rise: examples such as 120BPM in Paris, or It’s A Sin in London come to mind. I ask Philly if he sees Once Before I Go in the same light as those stories, and what our culture and history brings to it that might not be seen elsewhere.
“Those works were good references because it raised the question of ‘Well, what’s happening here?’ The play is set in Dublin, London, and Paris because people had to leave here for all sorts of reasons: for economic reasons, for health reasons, and that’s what’s unique to this story, to this city, and to this island. 120BPM is in Paris and It’s A Sin is in London, two big epicentres of the AIDS crisis, but we were just like this backwater. So that is important.
“There’s something about the stories in the air at the moment: wider society can hear them for the first time,” he continues. “I think for a long time, people were terrified of AIDS stories and in this country I think people were just like ‘That’s under the carpet.’ People that were dying of AIDS had family members who were saying ‘Oh they died of pneumonia.’ So I think wider society can hear these stories.”
The resonance of those issues today can’t be ignored, and I ask Philly if he was keen to make those connections in the play. “You know, there are parallels between the AIDS crisis and COVID, so it’ll be interesting to see what the audience takes in. I’m not clever enough to draw those parallels in the play but of course they’re just screamingly there anyway. Our job is to raise questions rather than give people the answers, so while the play is not concerned with the statistics of today, it’s saying that the struggle ain’t over,” he responds.
“I think that there are a lot of things that I see within our community. I get really concerned about what’s happening in the chem-sex scene. There’s a lot of people still dealing with unresolved shame, and homophobia at home and their families rejecting them, and of course wider society doesn’t think that exists anymore. HIV diagnoses are at the highest they’ve ever been in Ireland. There are all these things that are still going on, so the play is picking at that but it’s also talking about a lot of things in very, very gentle ways, such as queer parenting. And generally how we navigate the world, how you often have to follow somebody else’s rulebook, or choose to rip that up and make your own.”
With talk of cinemas struggling thanks to a significant uptick in streaming in a post-pandemic world, I wonder if either Selina or Philly have thoughts about how theatre might need to entice audiences back in their door. “There’s nothing like the live alchemy that you have, and you need a live audience I think,” argues Selina. “It would be a great film as well, but I don’t think you can beat breathing the same air as other people, seeing something live, and feeling that they are on that journey with you: laughing with you and crying with you and coming out the other side of a journey, you can’t get that through film or on screen in the same way.”
Philly agrees. “You’re doing something that’s essentially human. Even though the audience are not talking back — when they’re being polite — you’re asking the audience to be in a dialogue with you and you’re saying ‘I will share this story,’ and asking them to bear witness to that. And I think in those rooms, like in nightclubs and like in theatres, when we get to be in rooms together they become these kind of town halls. We can create value systems together and we can sort some shit out there. You can’t do that on the screen because you’re watching it on the screen and you’re on your phone and you’re live tweeting and that kind of thing. So even though the great thing about streaming is that you break down the geography question and often you break down the access question, the cost, and all of that, there is no experience like being in those rooms. When the theatre is great, you can’t match it.”
Once Before I Go opens in the Gate Theatre, Dublin on Friday October 1, with previews from Friday September 24. Tickets can be booked at gatetheatre.ie.
This article originally appeared in GCN issue 368, which can be read in full here.
© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.
This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 368 (October 1, 2021). Click here to read it now.
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