When Declan Greene’s new play, The Homosexuals, or ‘Faggots’ premiered in Melbourne last month, it did so in the same week that controversial gay conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos lost his book deal. In Sydney, it opened the day after the Federal Government announced its plans to reform 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, to remove the words “offend, insult, humiliate”.
It’s difficult to imagine more appropriate timings for this play, which drags the classic comedic form of farce kicking and screaming into the 21st century to unpack notions of offence, political correctness, and freedom of speech.
It’s Mardi Gras night, and Kim (Simon Corfield) and Warren (Simon Burke) are two affluent, gay, white men, living in (non-legally-recognised) marital bliss in a tiny, million dollar Darlinghurst apartment.
Kim is a gender studies lecturer, who has recently been attacked on social media for a minor language transgression when talking about transgender people, despite his best attempts to be politically correct.
But Warren, who runs a successful gay media outlet, couldn’t give a shit about political correctness, and fiercely guards his right to free speech. He’s about to go to a “politically incorrect” themed party with his close friend, Diana (Genevieve Lemon), an older trans woman who refers to herself by a particular big T word, that’s considered an offensive slur by many of her trans sisters, and relishes the gallows humour that developed in her community during the AIDS crisis.
The pair have both prepared deeply offensive costumes, but soon discover that a radical trans activist, Bae Bae (Mama Alto), is on the way up to their apartment. She has an enormous social media following and a history of successful campaigns shutting down companies whose personnel offend her and don’t adhere to her politics. What will she make of the situation she’s about to stumble into?
Of course, this is farce, so the plot evolves very quickly as Kim, Diana and Warren try to cover up their transgressions. There are mistaken identities, a bag of cocaine that goes missing, slapstick, food fights, and a beautiful, hunky twink, Lucacz (Lincoln Younes).
The initial Melbourne season faced some criticism for being a little sloppy in terms of its comedic timing and physicality. If that was the case, it’s been carefully drilled and whipped into shape since by director Lee Lewis, with every corner of designer Marg Horwell’s ingenious rendering of a Sydney shoebox filled with action.
“A complete social and financial death is at stake for these characters. And no inner city Sydney-sider wants to imagine what happens after that.”
At the play’s climax, Lewis brings the entire production to a spectacular and joyous cacophony of slamming doors, violence, screaming and terror, before pulling everything right back for the quiet and heart-wrenching finale, in which several of the characters must face what they’ve done wrong. Just before the play finishes, Kim and Warren remark that there are some really awful people out there. Indeed.
Corfield and Burke are both wonderfully monstrous as Kim and Warren — a picture perfect caricature of entitlement. Lemon puts her comedic skills to great use, before delivering the play’s major moment of gravitas with great feeling. Mama Alto is hilarious in her two very different roles, and Younes is perfect as the naive object of … well almost all the characters’ desires. We’re used to seeing bimbos objectified in farces, and it’s refreshing to see that trope subverted with a male character.
The stakes of the action might seem rather low to people who aren’t part of the world which Greene is writing about. But a complete social and financial death is at stake for these characters. And no inner city Sydney-sider wants to imagine what happens after that.
But the seemingly insignificant preoccupations of many of the characters are part of what makes this play so rewarding — just as classic farces took aim at the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality, Greene takes aim at the hypocrisies and desperation of the new “respectable” queers who have left behind the members of their community who can’t conform to that model of respectability.
The comedy ranges from intricate and perfectly-observed character work, to some cheap but very funny puns about the names of feminists and gender theorists. Occasionally there’s a joke which doesn’t quite land the way Greene might’ve hoped, and there’s a little steam lost about half of the way in, but the politics of this work are brilliant and fascinating.
Make no mistake: there are elements of this play that are extremely offensive to most queer people and to people from ethnic and religious minorities.
But Greene’s exploration of how offence is given and taken is so insightful and funny, these necessary crimes against political correctness are easily forgiven.
Political correctness exists so that we may treat each other fairly, with respect, and employ language and actions that don’t cause harm to certain people or groups. Political correctness is, broadly, a very good thing.
Occasionally, it can lead us astray, and adhering to its rules too strictly can be suffocating and even hypocritical. And occasionally the polite veneer of political correctness can be used to disguise real oppression and bigotry.
But Greene’s play isn’t anywhere near that didactic. Instead, he shows the complexities of identity politics and offence, and reminds that treating individuals and social groups with fairness and respect isn’t always as simple as it may seem.
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Featured image by Brett Boardman