Three's a crowd: My Night With Reg
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How Kevin Elyot's Aids farce My Night With Reg became a play for today

Now showing at London's Apollo Theatre, the 1994 play shines even brighter in an age when its characters could marry.

Almost 2,500 years after Sophocles and Euripides, it was hard to come up with a new form of theatre, but a play that premiered in New York in the spring of 1985 did. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart was the first major stage play about Aids. And the 30th anniversary of that landmark drama neatly coincides with a revival of the nearest English equivalent: the Donmar Warehouse’s 20th-birthday production of Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg transferred on 17 January to the Apollo Theatre in the West End of London.

The decade between the two plays shows in their tone and approach. The Normal Heart was a campaigning work of emergency journalism that was at times an animated article, reporting the story of the discovery of the condition and the slow response by the political, medical and media establishments. The dramatist even co-founded a pressure group called Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

Kramer’s central character, Ned Weeks – first played by Brad Davis and Joel Grey in New York and by Martin Sheen in London – is essentially an interviewer, going into the offices of doctors and others. The Normal Heart feels of its time. The great American play on the subject was written later: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which had the advantage of dealing with the Reagan administration as history rather than news.

If America was slow to respond to the epidemic, Britain was scandalously laggard. An article in the programme for the British premiere of The Normal Heart at the Royal Court in 1986 points out that the Thatcher government reacted only when haemophiliacs became infected by contaminated blood, and education about and funding to treat sexually transmitted HIV were slow to happen. An early, privately printed leaflet on safe sex was impounded by the Metropolitan Police on grounds of obscenity.

Although the infection and death toll in the UK was considerable, with the Terrence Higgins Trust serving as the equivalent here of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the impact was proportionately lighter than across the Atlantic – which is why, in 1994, it was possible for Kevin Elyot to write a farce about Aids.

The word is never mentioned in My Night With Reg but the audience soon understands what caused the death of Reg, who belongs with Godot in that select group of theatrical title characters who never appear on stage. At least five – and possibly all six – of the characters on stage are shown to have slept with Reg. In one of the best punchlines in modern theatre, one of the men recalls how “even the vicar at the crematorium said what a good fuck he was”.

The play is concerned more universally with loss and love – unrequited and betrayed – and the inequality of desire. Elyot died last year. Robert Hastie’s revival is a fitting memorial: in contrast to The Normal Heart, My Night With Reg seems even stronger as a play now than it did originally. Today, marriages between these characters would be legal. Although some theatregoers may still be shocked by what happens on stage (a notice warns about smoking and male nudity), it felt to me that My Night With Reg was now playing as Elyot had always hoped it would: as an Ayckbournian comedy of social embarrassment, in which the types of relationships the characters have are as relevant as the type of sex.

Elyot never got to write a play about gay couples in a culture of legal equality but, in another instructive conjunction, Russell T Davies has done it with Cucumber, the largest part of his new trilogy (Thursdays, 9pm, Channel 4), 15 years after Queer As Folk. He presents a middle-aged man panicking at a proposal from his long-term lover. In happier circumstances than 30 years ago, history has given gay drama a new twist.

Last word. Honest

The literary critic Edward Said’s book On Late Style – analysing the work of artists in their final years – was, with some poignancy, published posthumously. So another academic will have to tackle an emerging subgenre in last work: when a writer declares in advance that this marks the end of their career.

Anne Tyler has indicated that A Spool of Blue Thread, published next month, will be her final novel, following the example of Philip Roth, who has insisted that his own shelf will not extend beyond the 2010 novella Nemesis. The declaration of a full stop removes two of the most common fears of older writers: a dropping off in quality (John le Carré has said he has instructed his family to tell him if a book is not good enough to publish) and of dying in mid-sentence. The Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore once expressed horror at the prospect of “some bastard coming along and finishing it off for you”. As it happened, he left a story incomplete, but it has remained unseen.

Roth declared Nemesis the end retrospectively; his forthcoming biography may reveal a subsequent unpublished manuscript. Tyler, however, has ensured that readers will know the significance of the final page of A Spool of Blue Thread. Yet so devoted are her fans, that she may find the drawback of declaring retirement is an international campaign to change her mind.

 

My Night With Reg plays at the Apollo Theatre until April 11th.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution