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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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