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22 Jan 2009

Here come the brides

Want to get married as soon as gay marriage laws are passed? But be careful of what you wish for, says Nigel Collett in his review of Nona Shepphard's play The Marriage Bed - now showing in Hong Kong - in which audiences are brought face to face with the realities of being married.

Same-sex marriage or partnership has already been achieved in a small part of the world. In other parts, though, we are still fighting for the right to tie the knot, and in most of the world legally recognised same sex relationships are just a dream. But are we sure we really want to be hitched? Or should we beware that, if we get what we ask for, we may come to regret it? Nona Shepphard's play, The Marriage Bed, showing in the Drama Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, brings its audiences face to face with these dilemmas.

Longtime partners Val (left, played by playwright Nona Shepphard) who's a former activist, and Jeni, a closeted London attorney (Tali Friedman) must decide whether to 'marry' in The Marriage Bed after Britain passes a parliamentary bill legalising same-sex civil unions.
Val is a 55-year-old lesbian who's fought through the culture wars of the last three decades and survived a string of girlfriends, including three long-term relationships her current partner charmingly entitles 'bat, frog and toad'. Val earned her spurs at Greenham Common, she abseiled down into the chamber of the House of Commons, she resigned her teacher's post when Clause 28 prevented her teaching anything positive about the gay writers in her literature syllabus; she has, it can be justly said, done her bit for the cause. She is also a self-avowed feminist for whom marriage has always been, and in principle remains, the imposition of male patriarchy. But now she has come to rest at last in a partnership which, at the seven-year-point, is so far from arousing the legendary itch that she and her lover have decided to get wed. This is despite her dismay that her partner, Jeni, a middle class Jewish girl and a successful lawyer, is still in the closet to her mother and her boss. A civil partnership will put Val back in the closet she escaped from in her youth. Jeni, apart from her closetedness, has less political and emotional baggage than Val. She is a good twenty years younger and has been married to a man. Life has been much more conventional for her, she is a career woman and she dreams of a big wedding. On top of all this lie the questions and doubts that plague any couple of whatever sexual orientation. "Can I go through with this?" "Does she love me?" "What on earth am I giving it all up for?" So, the issues that bubble up from this mnage are recognisable to all of us, whether we be LGBT or straight, and they form the highly combustible fuel that drives this lively, thought-provoking play.

I will not spoil the story by revealing how it all works out, but suffice it to say that however things do pan out, they do so in an agreeably entertaining fashion. The audience can be assured of being amused as well as bemused by the predicament of two women who spend the entire performance on and around a king-sized bed. This is a bed which changes shape to accommodate the action. It also very cleverly provides a store for all the props (it is amazing what can be hidden under a mattress). Jeni's traditionally frightening Jewish mother, in the guise of a very large and very ugly rubber doll, pops out of a drawer every now and then to cast her pall over the couple (she seems to be the only person who has ever intimidated Val, who would sooner face nuclear missiles at Greenham than tea, biscuits and interrogation with Mrs Shaha). There are some very funny moments in the play as Val lets the horror of what she is letting herself in for sink in. There are some very touching scenes, too, as the two women, seemingly incompatible but actually hopelessly in love, try to work out just what the hell they are going to do. At one point in the play, sitting next to each on the end of the bed, glumly looking out into the audience, they deliberately evoke the image of Laurel and Hardy, Val muttering 'this is another fine mess you've got me into'. The self-deprecating humour of this visually very apt image is typical of the play's lack of pretentiousness. It presents us with the issues but without the rhetoric that could offend or detract from the warmth of the characters. There's no grand standing here.

Shepphard wrote the play in 2006 for Ruby Tuesday Productions in London and has starred in it as Val ever since, taking the play to New York and now Hong Kong. She conceived the idea behind the plot at the civil partnership of her cousin, who was one of the first to make the commitment in Camden in December 2005, when the Civil Partnership Bill became law in England. She started her career as an actor then director in provincial theatre in Liverpool, Southampton and Chester, where she first began to write plays. She has had a very distinguished career in drama teaching and is now an Associate Director at RADA. She has herself lived through the struggle for the Civil Partnership Bill as well as the arguments which, as she puts it, 'produced a storm of debate in the gay community and bedrooms all over the country'. She is bluff, blowsy and very funny, and spends most of the play in billowing pyjamas. Her partner on stage, Tali Friedman, is as visually different from Nona as the character of Jeni, whom she plays, is from Val. She is tall, thin, winnowy, raven dark haired and black business suited. The two are more than fellow actors, both having founded the Acting Shakespeare Company (Tali is its producer), which, amongst other things, runs courses for RADA. Tali's both a stage and a film actress with a classical and modern repertoire.

The play was the very first play produced by the newly founded Amphora Theatre Company, a surprising and somewhat daring choice of a first play to bring to Hong Kong. Amphora is the creation of Henry Coombs, himself an actor and voice-over artist with a background originally in the Hong Kong Ballet. He has put Amphora together to import 'professional theatre productions from around the world to Hong Kong and the Asian Pacific Region', a welcome development in a city where English drama is a rather neglected field. Henry took a two month Acting Shakespeare Course with Nona in RADA in 2006 and saw her play then. Though that explains the connection, The Marriage Bed was not a natural choice for the stage in Hong Kong, where the subject of same-sex marriage or partnership is highly controversial and where the audiences for a play featuring two lesbians, a rubber dummy and a bed are bound to be, on the face of it, somewhat limited. Not to forget the inclusion of one very affectionate and tender full frontal kiss, not something you see every day on the Hong Kong stage between two women.

But staging The Marriage Bed is a way to make your mark as a new arrival on the Hong Kong drama scene, and Henry Coombs is to be applauded for his marketing skills as much as for his nerve. The Academy for Performing Arts needs less of both, of course, being very much the dramatic establishment here, but they have a very good record of fostering the avant garde and of refusing to be frightened of the sexually-diverse. After all, Alan Bennett's The History Boys (and that is a very gay play) was the star turn at the Hong Kong Arts Festival several years back. Nevertheless, both the HKAPA and Amphora may rightly be more than a little proud of provoking Hong Kong's theatre audiences with The Marriage Bed.

The Marriage Bed will be performed at the Drama Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts from Jan 21-24, 2009 at 8pm. Tickets are available via hkticketing.com.


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