This week, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls opens at that National Theatre. The play starts with an imagined dinner party between Marlene, the recently appointed boss of an employment agency – and a group of notable females from history, including one who managed to become pope without anyone suspecting her gender.
Further on down the river at the Globe, Tom Stuart’s new work After Edward plays with a similar idea. Stuart, who performs as a version of himself, falls from the sky and lands with a thud in a room variously populated by Gertrude Stein (Annette Badland), Quentin Crisp (Richard Cant), Harvey Milk (Polly Frame), a few members of the Village People, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Margaret Thatcher (Sanchia McCormack).
Mixed into this fever dream of queer icons and the Prime Minister behind Section 28 is Stuart’s recent performance at the same venue as Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. And on top of that (or, again, mixed in with that) is Stuart’s youth spent being bullied for being gay at a time when homophobia ran rampant in the media, plus a previous doomed relationship with a man named Billy, who is simultaneously Edward’s Gaveston (Beru Tessema).
Confused? You really needn’t be, because in practice Brendan O’Hea’s production is a very easy piece of theatre to follow (it’s complex only if you try to describe it in words, so sorry about that). There are several things going on here. One is Stuart’s identity as a gay man, his internalised shame and the connection he detects between himself and fellow queer people throughout history, including those like Stein, Crisp and Milk who all possess clashing points of view about their sexualities. These invisible bonds between the Stuart and the famous characters that populate his psyche provide comfort and guidance, but there’s also a weight to their presence on stage, the suggestion that living up to your heroes can feel like a burden especially when their views aren’t always what you’d like them to be.
The other is a reflection on acting and how character bleeds into performer and performer bleeds into character. In this instance, it’s further complicated by the real historical figure of Edward II. One of the plays most moving segments involves Stuart recounting a trip to Berkley Castle, site of Edward’s prolonged imprisonment and gruesome murder. Standing at the edge of Edward’s dungeon, he recalls, ‘looking down it, this deep black hole and thinking – this is where love gets you.’
At points, the entire endeavour skirts the edge of being a tiny bit broad or a tiny bit obvious. But, almost guiltily, I pretty much forgave all of its minor sins or flaws (ones I probably would have criticised elsewhere) for one simple, human reason: Tom Stuart is just so damn nice. I mean, he radiates such absolute loveliness, such honest ego-less love and care, that it’s hard to feel anything else than pure joy that he wrote this and it’s being performed and, most of all, that he’s sharing this moment with a room full of people, every night, for around three weeks, and to just wish him every happiness in the entire world. Tom, you’re great.
I’m not sure I have anything other than that to say.
After Edward is on at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 6th April. More info and tickets here.