Seeing Things

As a young man growing up in country NSW, I’d have to summon up the courage to go into my local newsagent to purchase copies of the gay newspapers/campaign, Campaign and Outrage. At the time, they were considered somewhat notorious (as they contained personal advertisements) and were often located near pornographic magazines. Sometimes they were also located near pop music magazines, which I thought was a way in which the newsagent sought to make it easier for me to make my purchase. “Smash Hits”, “TV Week” and “Campaign”.

Having made my purchase, I’d take the magazines home, lock my door and devour their contents. At about the age of 15, I remember vividly reading early news about HTLV-3 and the “gay plague” that had been linked to the use of Amyl Nitrate (co-incidentally, twenty-five years later Meth is being linked to an increase in unsafe sex leading to HIV infection). I remember vividly the controversy about the front-page publication in “Outrage” of a couple of young models dressed in their high school outfits, illustrating a story about gay youth. I remember reading the personal ads, desperately hoping I’d find a name or a nearby location I’d recognise, though I doubt I’d have responded even if I’d seen one.

Further into the 1980s and 1990s, I also remember vividly reading about the Sydney theatre scene, including the often-controversial works of Graeme Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company and of the works of the playwright, Barry Lowe. Although I can’t be specific about the memory, I remember he wrote “gay plays”, which intrigued me greatly.

It wasn’t until last night, however, that I’d actually seen one of Barry Lowe’s “gay plays”. Based loosely on “Blithe Spirit”, “Seeing Things” has some of the qualities of the bedroom farce, which for many years was part of the staple diet of amateur theatre in Australia. I’ve lost track, for example, of the number of times I saw “Ballina Players” put on a Noel Coward or a George Bernard Shaw piece. Seemingly anachronistic at the time, there was a certain anachronistic quality in “Seeing Things” also.

Although at the time I can imagine it was quite a “wild play” with its content, language and nudity, in 2006, it all seemed a little lame. Visions of “Ballina Players” came flooding back as the cast often over-acted and over-projected in this production. The funniest moment of the entire night was when the entire audience overheard one audience member explaining part of the plotline to another. “It’s the wombat”, he said, leading to screams of laughter from the entire house.

And it was a full house. On our arrival, the director told us that last week had been an absolute disaster with hardly anyone turning up. But on this occasion, and apparently, for the rest of the week, it was a sell-out. I’m guessing part of the reason for its latter success is that in the mainstreaming of gay culture in Sydney, we’re actually seeing fewer and fewer “gay plays”. I mean the last “gay play” I saw was “Strangers In Between” about eighteen months ago. And the next big “gay play” will be “Holding The Man” at The Stables which I’m looking forward to immensely.

So despite its old-fashionedness, there’s something about the play which must have a universal appeal. Despite the wider acceptance of gay sexuality, especially in Sydney, maybe there’s an argument the desire for sexual orientation validation through popular culture remains strong. As supportive and accepting as the outside world is, these days, I suspect the need for internal support and acceptance remains strong.

And although this production left a lot to be desired from a modern theatrical point of view, I guess it remains relevant for those reasons. The audience seemed to laugh a lot anyway. Interesting too that Barry Lowe was actually in the audience last night. I wonder what he made of it, especially since the director had been an actor in the original production all those years ago in “Campaign” or “Outage”.

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