Mark Bunyan takes a hatchet to Family Values in his clerical farce ‘Mysterious Ways’ which Homo Promos is giving in a Zoom performance on Tuesday 1st June. Peter Scott-Presland tells us more.
Those of us who lived through the mid to late 1980s are unlikely to recall the era with any pleasure. It was a beleaguered time. Gay men in particular were assailed from all sides it seemed, skewered on the twin prongs of the AIDS panic and Tory Family Values. Everywhere the media were running their nails down the blackboards of our lives.
‘Gay Plague’ – ‘Call to Quarantine’ – ‘Corruption of children’. Eagerly the press covered the pronouncements of Greater Manchester’s Chief Constable that gays were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making’; of Dame Jill Knight that Labour councils were ‘teaching children as young as five how to be gay’. Thatcher herself joined in with the claim that children were ‘being taught that they had an inalienable right to be gay’ and thus ‘deprived of a sound start in life’. Two years before Section 28, the Tories transferred responsibility for sex education from local councils to individual boards of school governors, while forbidding them to talk of safer sex or to discuss homosexuality. Lesbian and gay teachers had nowhere to hide, pupils nowhere to turn. Everywhere we were confronted with images of tombstones, icebergs… We marched on Sandwell where a local councillor invoked gas chambers for us.
The reaction was rage and a frustration which comes from dealing with an immoveable government with a majority of over 100. But along with that, all the slogans and marches, there was another wonderful weapon in our armoury – humour and satire. The lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords during the debate on Section 28; the lesbians who stormed the BBC newsroom. ‘Oh dear, we have been rather invaded,’ said Sue Lawley, as she sat on a dyke and struggled to keep reading the news.
There were also the songs, the books and the plays. Properly considered, the outrageous slurs of the Thatcher-Knights were material for farce. My own Campfire brought boy scouts up against leather queens with no visible harm down to them; rather more to the leather queens terrified of the scouts’ eagerness to do a good deed.
Which brings me to Mysterious Ways by Mark Bunyan, a farce set in a Bishop’s Palace. He was told by agents that ‘they loved it’, but ‘they couldn’t possibly do it’. In short, it was too gay for them, so, like our Lord, the play was ‘despised and rejected’. And has languished ever since. Now it rises, and we push back the stone, thirty years later.
The inescapable shadow of Family Values is Family Hypocrisy, which is why the subject is fit for farce.
It is of course fast, furious and very funny. However, for all the comings and goings, there is a serious point below the bubbling surface. It is a response to the concept of Family Values, which was ubiquitous; these were, of course, heterosexual, situated in the heterosexual family with its strict gender roles, and exclusive rather than inclusive. No place for our sort there.
The inescapable shadow of Family Values is Family Hypocrisy, which is why the subject is fit for farce. As Mark Bunyan says, “Farce is always about hypocrisy and the lying and manoeuvring that goes with maintaining respectability. It used to be about adultery: in English farces, perceived adultery; in French farces, the way to get away with adultery. However, the lies that go with shoring up that particular façade are no longer funny.”
But by the mid-1980s, with the screw tightening on gays, there were areas of hypocrisy that shouted out to be made into farce, none more so than closeted gay men in positions of power, often denying their sexuality even more often than they were bedding the next man to come along. Nowhere did this seem truer than in the Church.
Though it’s classic farce – it has French windows, nudity, an exorcist who should be played by Robertson ‘Oh Calamity!’ Hare, long lost children and copious quantities of alcohol – it ends up somewhere alongside the Gay Liberation Front.
Mysterious Ways picks up the ball of Family Values and hits it over the pavilion (to mix sporting metaphors). What are families? What are their values? There’s more than one way to skin the family cat.
What follows from that is what I can only describe as the flavour, which constantly reminds you of Joe Orton. With two deaths in the play, one being murder, this is definitely black comedy. I don’t mean in a derivative sense, although there are one or two lines which could have come from the pen of the Oscar Wilde of the Welfare State. No, it’s more the attitude, of a wide-eyed cheerful cheekiness which can say something outrageous, and then innocently ask, “Did I say something?”
It’s bracing and refreshing, and ends up with a liberal humane interpretation of family values, of an extended family which can include multiple attachments and a wide range of sexuality. Though it’s classic farce – it has French windows, nudity, an exorcist who should be played by Robertson ‘Oh Calamity!’ Hare, long lost children and copious quantities of alcohol – it ends up somewhere alongside the Gay Liberation Front. But it goes for the throat with a smile on its face.
Mysterious Ways is being performed on Tuesday 1st June by Homo Promos. To come to Mysterious Ways, follow the link:
All plays are free to watch, but Homo Promos continue to crowdfund for the series, in order to be able to pay their actors something for their work. It has been a rough time for the performing arts, and theatres are only coming back slowly. If you would like to support Homo Promos please donate at: Homo Promos Zoom Play Readings Series 4 – a Film and Theatre crowdfunding project in London by Homo Promos Theatre (crowdfunder.co.uk)