Wednesday, May 01, 2002

REVIEW: Gates of Gold, (The Gate, Dublin)

Given Gates of Gold’s preoccupation both with possession and the sprits of the dead, that a visitation was in order never seemed in doubt. The question then was simply would the ghosts of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammóir begin haunting the theatre they founded at the previews of the play inspired by their life together, or would they wait for the grand occasion of the first night?

For Gates of Gold, the central gay couple are dubbed Conrad (a perfectly poised Richard Johnson, presumably playing the code version of Hilton) and Gabriel, his name presumably standing in for that other archangel, Michael. But although the names are comically close to their originals, McGuinness idea is not that biographical reality should show up in his compact drama set in a Dublin apartment, but that a certain sense of the pair and their relationship could materialise.

In these later years, the men’s relationship has transformed itself into some new accommodation, in which passion has diminished, but love has, if anything, grown. It is now communicated largely through bitter verbal jousts, thereby allowing McGuinness to add a classic entry to the liturgy of the bitchy queen.

The playwright’s script taps into a rich seam that includes theatrical camp, Lear allusions, supernatural possession and lacerating humour. Gabriel, as played by Alan Howard, is an extraordinary, magnificent character, one moment drowning in self-pity, the next laughing the most courageous guffaws in the face of death. His wit is relentless and excoriating, flaying friends, enemies and himself with equal vigour.

Conrad and Gabriel’s vicious bickering is interrupted by the arrival of a torrid pair of relatives, Gabriel’s sister Kassie (Rosaleen Linehan) and his nephew Ryan (James Kennedy). Like Gabriel, they have issues with the truth.

They tell unbelievable truths, make up fantastic stories, invent specious biographies and, of course, imagine illnesses. Kassie has according to Gabriel suffered from every ailment know to man “except perhaps the hair lip of the Hapsburgs”, which she is “currently developing”. The accumulation of their fictions finally becomes so overpowering that we begin to doubt that his relatives are anything other than the creations of Gabriel’s morphine-primed mind.

The play relies heavily on Howard’s work, a performance that is pretty much without a flaw. Though the character has a lineage that reaches all the way from MacLiammóir’s version of Oscar Wilde to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, that certainly does not seem to prevent Howard from offering something fresh and moving.

Rosaleen Linehan’s pathological lying is swaggeringly hilarious at times, while Donna Dent’s nursey saint-with-a-secret is a warm, layered creation. Some of the scenarios that surround the dying man, however, even if they are supposed to be surreal, druggy imaginings, come across as rather jumbled, rushed even. The frays show most clearly with Kennedy’s Ryan, a strangely lost, unrelentingly self-serious character. In this netherworld of the inoperable put-down, anyone so completely lacking a sense of humour is always going to be an awkward presence.