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October 5, 2009 | by  | in Theatre |
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Mates and Lovers


Mates and Lovers is a play of push and pull, inner and outer worlds, contradiction and synthesis. In a less roundabout way, it’s about men who love men in this country. Before it was a play, it was a coffee-table history book by Chris Brickell with a decidedly eye-catching cover; two older men in older clothes, sitting backwards in their seats the way men are supposed to, knees touching the way they possibly shouldn’t. Brickell’s Mates and Lovers won the Montana New Zealand Book Award, so it’s probably worth reading, but we’re here to talk about the play. And the play is good.

Writer-director Ronald Trifero Nelson was first inspired by the cover art for Brickell’s book, deciding to name these mysterious men Toby and Ben. His adaptation works well as a riff on that central image. Two men, Sam McLeod and Kent Seaman, play a range of Kiwi men (and women) spanning the last couple of centuries. Chronologically, the play begins in the late 18th Century, with European migrants policing the bounds of acceptable masculinity in a strange new land. Artistically, it begins with a ballet that sets the tone for the piece; two men unabashedly flow, bump, push, pull, into and out of each other. It’s a familiar theatrical image, and the actors’ comfort with this familiarity makes it work. This natural flow between the two men is felt throughout the play, if only by its harsh denial in a number of scenes. Not content to interact with each other, they also interact heavily with Brendan Goudswaard’s deceptively simple costumes, finding their way into and out of them throughout the play. Unfortunately, a few muffed lines interrupt this otherwise polished interaction.

The historical background is, well, backgrounded at times, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. A telling example is the tryst between two Chinese lovers. With the lights down, we don’t know exactly where they are, or how they got there—and most of the audience doesn’t know exactly what they’re saying. But they are communicating lovingly with each other, and in a homophobic, xenophobic place and time, that’s absolutely necessary to survival. This historical struggle for survival runs throughout the play, from the 18th century to the 21st, with the deep contradictions of the 1980s somewhere along the way. The narrative even finds its way to Berlin in 1929, a short-lived haven where gay men are “at worst a commodity,” but where fascism looms, ready to punish both political and sexual difference.

If at times the play feels like a whistle-stop tour, it’s bound by clarity in intent, sentiment and execution. Everything in the play tells us something we need to hear. It concludes by reminding us of the “homosexual panic” defence recently used as a defence for David McNee’s murder, before updating its central image; Toby and Ben may have changed their clothes, but they’re still here, knees still touching. Mates and Lovers is a refreshing summation of the struggle thus far.

Mates and Lovers
Directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson
Written by Ronald Trifero Nelson from a book by Chris Brickell
With Sam McLeod and Kent Seaman
At BATS, 24 Sept—3 Oct 2009

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