Language can be a minefield. As minority groups and progressives continue their fight for respect, they are “calling out” hurtful slurs and harmful stereotypes more publicly than ever before – especially online. On the conservative side, this is seen as a “PC gone mad” attack on traditional values and speech, led by “snowflakes”. It’s an exhausting, confusing time to be alive, with both sides yelling just as loudly at, and on top of, each other. Have we picked the right battles to fight?
Declan Greene’s modern farce The Homosexuals tackles this landscape head-on from inside perhaps its most pressurised component: the queer community.
It’s set in an ultra-modern Darlinghurst apartment (designed by Marg Horwell) belonging to middle-aged flirt Warren (Simon Burke) and Kim (Simon Corfield), a younger gender studies academic. Warren is a symbol of modern gay affluence: a home-owner who has made a comfortable living for himself as editor of The Daily Bulge, holding ‘photo shoots’ on the side where he casually hits on and hooks up with young models.
We meet Lucasz (Lincoln Younes), the subject of one Warren’s latest photo shoots, early into the play, but Warren’s supposed to be giving up that particular gig now he and Kim are married. His night soon unravels: Kim returns home early after being cyberbullied for an accidental transphobic comment, so Lucasz must be hidden, and Warren must interview a “drag queen” (actually trans activist Bae Bae, played by genderqueer cabaret artist Mama Alto) – who of course is the woman Kim had inadvertently insulted. Meanwhile Diana (Genevieve Lemon), a transwoman and Warren’s old friend, arrives to take Warren to a politically incorrect costume party – for which she’s already dressed.
Add a thieving intruder and an impromptu dinner party into the mix and you have chaos: the slamming doors and mistaken identity of farce, projectile mashed potatoes, cocaine, and a barrage of insensitive language, mostly from Warren.
Director Lee Lewis keeps the play humming with frenetic pacing that only occasionally overwhelms, and she has fostered a tight, intelligent sense of comic timing both in the scenes as a whole and in the snappy flow of dialogue between the stellar ensemble – one that feels entirely natural (possible because the show had a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre before opening in Sydney).
Some of the images (particularly the parade of politically incorrect costumes) are hard to look at, and some of the asides are too casually cruel or hypocritical to bear (a mild one: Warren complains about the chef in a traditional English pub offering “faggots” – a meatball dish – on her menu by calling her a “dyke”).
But Greene is building a precise, clear point about offense, outrage, and insult: that semantics, misunderstandings, and thoughtless mistakes aren’t perhaps the most important hill to die on. We need to look beneath those; if we don’t, our easy outrages can drown out minority oppression and minority voices.
But he’s also exploring something much more pernicious, and this is what elevates the play from good shock comedy to excellent examination of the human condition: that language has power, especially when people in positions of power abuse it, and that those who are new to having that kind of power can be disturbingly cavalier in abusing it. Greene’s play, for all its entrances and exits and “Quick! Hide!” antics comes from a place of concern about the established hierarchy and distribution of power in the queer community.
This structure mimics the broader structure of our society: it places white cis men – especially older, wealthier men like Warren – at the top. Gay men have been accepted into the ‘mainstream’ and have been able to achieve assimilated success within heteronormative society, with more ease and success than others. Greene’s play looks at how, once these men climbed the ladder into a better life, most have never looked back – pulling the ladder up behind them, leaving more vulnerable members of the queer community behind.
At first Warren’s insults about lesbians and transwomen seem relatively harmless; he’s cutting and catty about everything and everyone. But as the play progresses Greene re-frames these comments as a representation of the chasm between the acceptable queer identity of the middle-class white gay male and the rest of the queer community, who are still frequently seen as threats, outcasts, or targets for violence and disenfranchisement.
Greene’s work has held concerns about the commodification and assimilation of gay culture for a while now; this was the core of preoccupation of Calpurnia Descending, made with Ash Flanders as part of their Sister Grimm project, for Sydney Theatre Company’s 2014 season.
The Homosexuals feels like a natural expansion of his concern about the shape of queer culture.
This farce is the kind of sexy comedy of manners that owes a great debt to Georges Feydeau, or even Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, but Greene also knows that to move beyond offence for provocation's sake there must be a denouement of truth – so he denies the farce its happy ending, bringing it back to devastating reality. He gives that power of gravity and truth to brassy, mouthy, profane Diana, who speaks for the still-oppressed queers, who unlike Warren uses insult humour is as a self-preserving shield – rather than a weapon. She speaks for those who weigh their values against preserving long-held friendships with those who see themselves – consciously or not – as better than their peers.
Greene’s structure is genius: he uses farce to dramatise the current merry-go-round of “call out culture” as it plays out in the middle-class gay community, and abandons it to hit us with the full weight of the human suffering behind privilege-in-action.
It’s a refreshingly urgent piece of new Australian writing that not only has it taken the temperature of the current socio-political climate (it’s like a Twitter timeline come to excruciating life); it’s also relentlessly funny, from physical comedy and slapstick through to the verbal provocations that might have you checking others in the audience are laughing before you let go yourself. It’s essential queer theatre.