Torch Song Trilogy
David Bedella tells us why Harvey Fierstein's landmark play is still relevant today.
It's the day before press night and David Bedella is feeling the pressure. 'A lot rides on tomorrow night,' he says. 'The future of the show is dependent on whether I and my co-stars give a good performance.'
The show is 'Torch Song Trilogy' - Harvey Fierstein's landmark play about a Jewish drag queen, Arnold, looking for love in '70s New York. The role was first played by Fierstein himself. The 1985 London production starred Antony Sher. Was it daunting following in their footsteps? 'God, yes!' says Bedella, who is neither Jewish nor a New Yorker, but grew up in Indiana, the son of Mexican parents. 'Those are big shoes to fill!'
For the record, Bedella fills them extremely well. At times he even appears to be channelling Fierstein. 'I happen to be a little bit in love with Harvey,' he says. 'He's so much larger than life. You can't just approach this role simply as an actor. You have to approach it as somebody who, for better or worse, represents our community - not by vote, but by virtue of being in this position, speaking these words, telling the community at large what we go through. It's a big responsibility.'
Bedella is aware that some people might regard the play as a period piece, but believes passionately that the themes are just as relevant today. 'As far as we have come, and as proud as we are, you still see people on the news who've been bludgeoned to death because of their sexuality. We still have so much work to do. We really do.'
He pauses. 'I probably shouldn't say this…' Oh, go on. He chuckles. 'I was at a friend's house this weekend. There were four gay men and a straight couple. We were making gay jokes and the straight father covered his little baby's ears and said, “Don't catch gay in this house!” He was joking. And we all know that he loves us. But there's still this underlying sense that he would be upset if his child was gay, that it would be a loss to him. Even someone who has gay friends and sees the life that we lead, even he has these feelings.'
In the play, these feelings are explored through Arnold's difficult relationship with his mother, who struggles with the idea that the love he feels for another man in any way compares to her marriage to his father. Bedella has experienced similar struggles. 'My sister and I are very close,' he says. 'But there was a breaking point when I told her that my partner and I were having a ceremony and asked if she'd be a part it. She flew off the handle because I used the term “marriage.” “How dare you call this a marriage? A marriage is between a man and a woman! A marriage is what I have!” It was like a scene out of the play. My own mother did say to me that she genuinely had to go through a mourning period, and I do understand that. Where you and I have had however many years we took to come to terms with our sexuality, my mother got it all in one blow.'
Antony Sher famously came out after playing the role of Arnold - an experience he described in his book, 'Year of the King'. Does Bedella think that gay actors have a responsibility to be open about their sexuality? 'No,' he says. 'I don't think that. I have friends who, because they play romantic leads, feel they can't come out because it would limit the kind of roles they're offered. Personally, I've been very lucky. Because of my looks, because of my ethnicity, I've never been a romantic lead. I've always been more of a character actor. I was able to say that I would never lie about who
I was. And it's all worked out fairly well, although the repercussions are that I spend my life in drag!'
It seems to me that one reason straight audiences embrace shows like 'Torch Song Trilogy' or 'The Rocky Horror Show' (in which Bedella also starred) is that men in drag are somehow more palatable. 'I think there's some truth in that,' he says. 'I think drag queens are less of a threat, because they're in that other world. It's much more threatening when you have a gay character who can pass as straight. But I have enormous respect for people in our community who are innately effeminate and who cannot hide, even if they wanted to. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to live your life that way.'
Part of the charm of 'Torch Song Trilogy' is that it takes us behind the pancake and sequins. What begins as a drag act ends up as a domestic drama. 'It's a great journey for an actor to go on,' Bedella beams. 'I wouldn't want people to think that this is strictly a gay play, or a play that only speaks to our community. It was certainly written for our community. But if there's anything I've learned in the time that we've been working on it, is that it's a universal play about self-acceptance and love. I'm more moved by this than anything I've done in years. I love it, and I feel very lucky.'
'Torch Song Trilogy' runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until Aug 12