Playwright Martin Sherman and director Sean Mathias are telling me about how far they go back. “We were together, in our early friendship, around a swimming pool in Key West, when we heard John Lennon had died,” Mathias recalls. “There were all these muscle queens in Speedos, listening to opera.”
“They were leather queens,” Sherman interjects. “All they would talk about was Tosca.”
We are sitting in an Italian restaurant a few doors down from the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, where final rehearsals are taking place for Gently Down The Stream. The play is about Beau, a gay American pianist living in London, whose relationship with a younger lawyer causes him to reappraise the ever-changing nature of love.
It’s the latest of several collaborations for Sherman and Mathias, and it’s been 40 years since they were first brought together by Bent, Sherman’s seminal play about gay love in a Nazi concentration camp.
Mathias initially read it before its debut at the Royal Court, when Sir Ian McKellen was asked to feature and asked Mathias to read it over. “I read Bent because I had started dating Ian,” recalls Mathias, 62. “This was in 1978. I was 22. I said: ‘You have got to do it’. We had this dinner and Martin and Ian formed their professional relationship, and we became friends very quickly. I was a baby!”
“But you were an adorable baby,” Sherman, 80, smiles. “I adored Sean the moment I met him. There was no angst involved, or neurosis.” Later, Mathias would direct a revival of Bent and then, in 1997, a film adaptation starring Clive Owen.
Sherman moved to the UK from the US more than 40 years ago and considers London to be his unequivocal home. There were therefore, he concedes, some nerves when Mathias suggested debuting Gently Down The Stream on Broadway rather than in the West End. The play is set firmly in London but Beau’s tales from his past — a cruel father, the lovers lost to hate crimes and the Aids epidemic — seem to give New York equal billing.
“While the play is set in London there is so much that is about New York of that period,” Mathias says. “The genesis of Aids for us, for our friends, in New York. So I felt emotionally that it might feel very potent. It turned out to be an extraordinary experience.”
This is despite a certain tendency for American audiences to show their appreciation in a different way to us more reserved Brits. “The first American show I did was on Broadway, which was quite a good start,” Mathias recalls. “It was Les Parents Terribles, transferred from the National. Two- thirds through act one you find out that the father’s mistress is also the son’s mistress. When that happened on Broadway it was like being in a bingo hall: all around the auditorium, it was crazy. In England? There was silence.”
Sherman asserts: “Americans love the plot. Brits enjoy the subtext.”
In Gently Down The Stream, Beau is both beguiled and distressed by the attention of Rufus, a gregarious lawyer half his age. Rufus is fascinated by his stories of what he sees as the golden age of gay life, ignoring the darkness. “Why are you so fascinated by the past,” Beau asks him, “when you care so little about history?”
Have young gay men forgotten the struggles? “If you’re an African-American man, for example, you can’t forget your history,” Sherman says. “You are stopped in your car by a white policeman. You remember everything about Jim Crow [racial segregation laws enforced in the US until 1965] and slavery, because it’s all coming back and threatening you again. But if you’re a gay man it’s easier to not be connected with your history because it isn’t as dangerously present. But I think that’s the future of being young: I was a kid in the Forties and I didn’t know anything about the First World War.”
“You knew about Greta Garbo,” Mathias points out. Sherman smiles.
We talk about the closure of gay spaces in London — both say they wish they’d had Grindr, the gay dating app, in their youth to save them awkward nights in bars and clubs. They make me feel like I’m out for brunch with friends. It becomes easy to forget that I’m supposed to be asking questions rather than answering them.
As Beau and Rufus’s romance blossoms they question their future and a potential civil partnership — the story begins in 2001, though later reaches forward. Beau is resistant to being squeezed into a norm established by heterosexual society. “When gay marriage was solidified here I woke up the next morning and realised, ‘Oh my God, I’m a spinster,’” Sherman says, chuckling. “There is always, in heterosexual society, a focus on men — and of course especially on women — who aren’t married.”
“It’s sitting more comfortably,” Mathias says, “now that there’s gay divorce.”
Talk turns to a comparative dearth of out gay men in showbusiness. One assumes they hide their sexuality for fear of professional repercussions but, Sherman thinks, “those are conditions that are laid down by people in power, not the audience”.
Mathias agrees. “I honestly think the public don’t give a flying f***,” he says. “They want to see an actor who they love play a role. If it’s a straight man playing a gay man, they don’t care. If it’s a gay man playing a straight man, they don’t care. This need for celebrity voyeurism, which is greater than ever before, funnily enough doesn’t seem to influence that part of them. All they want is to see their favourite actor, they don’t want to know who they’re f***ing.”
Plans are already afoot for their next collaboration which, in a way, marks their relationship coming full circle. “Are we allowed to talk about our future?” Mathias asks, looking across to Sherman, as if he is asking the question in an existential context as opposed to what has been authorised by publicists or agents. Then: “It’s the 40th anniversary of Bent. And there are plans for me to direct, that much we can say.”
“A transformative production,” Sherman teases. “I can’t think of anything nicer than for us to carry on working with each other.”
With the recent success of plays such as the National Theatre’s Angels in America revival and acclaimed two-parter The Inheritance (“I saw it four times,” Sherman says), Gently Down The Stream may solidify the success of gay theatre in London even further.
Mathias once firmly resisted that label, saying “I don’t want to hang in a gay art gallery. My work is my work.” Does this still stand? “I suppose there was a danger then... I didn’t want to be labelled, or diminished, by people’s ignorance. Now I’m so old that I don’t care what f***ing gallery I hang in. Just put me in a gallery!”
Gently Down The Stream is at the Park, N4 (parktheatre.co.uk), from tomorrow until March 16