A man limps down the sloping footpath of Green Park, passing in front of two men sitting on a park bench.
One of the seated men is young and voguish, with bleached hair, earrings and a neon-orange shirt. The other wears a drooping cap and button-down shirt. Rough-hewn, he’s old enough to be the other’s dad.
The limping pedestrian is oblivious to the fact that he has just crossed through a play. There are no signs, no lines and none of the ‘dressing up’ to indicate a show is on. No stage edges or props. No lighting except the fading dusk and the streetlamp that hangs above the bench.
Had he looked closer, he would have noticed that the people gathered in the park – widely dispersed on deck chairs and picnic blankets – were all facing in the one direction, unnaturally still, and also wearing headphones. But he was, perhaps, heading home from work, tired from the day’s load. And the two men on the bench were just talking, after all, and not even loudly. If he’d left work a little later, perhaps, he would have passed in front of what looked like the older man giving the younger a hand job.
Elias Jamieson Brown‘s Green Park is a site-specific, sensitively observed and intensely naturalistic performance that throws up the gaps and dislocations that exist between generations of Sydney’s queer communities. Deeply rooted in place, it is also about the ghosts that hang in the air and rise up from their earth to continue their haunting – invisible, at times unfathomed, but felt.
Directed by Declan Greene, Griffin Theatre Company’s artistic head, the drama unravels between Warren (Steve Le Marquand) and Edden (Joseph Althouse), who are hooking up for the first time on Grindr.
From their very first interactions, it is clear that the two have very different protocol for negotiating sexual exchange. Warren is a white man in his fifties, still maintaining the facade of a straight marriage despite his decades shagging men, and is unwilling to confront the realities of his clearly gay son. For all the filthy images he sent Edden earlier, in-person he finds safety in subtext, in rote behavioural codes (a chat, beers back at his place, the promise of a massage).
Edden, a proudly queer Indigenous millennial and self-identified twink with a backpack full of nangs, cuddles up beside Warren and talks about Instagram filters (‘so two-thousands’) and the lucrative potential of OnlyFans.
The performance of their sexual identity and desires could hardly be more different. While they try to make room for the other, to formulate a dialogue and exchange that works for them both, doing so asks for more than they have in themselves to give.
The eponymous play and place are inseparable. So much so, that Brown declined to adapt the piece for a Victorian setting when he first wrote it for Melbourne Theatre Company.
A mid-size, leafy park not far from the Oxford Street strip, Green Park’s extant and demolished structures rattle with the bones of a violent past. A meeting place (if never quite a refuge) for the city’s outcasts, its grounds are steeped in sordid shadows, wretched phantoms and shames produced and enforced by society and state.
At the top end, near the Jewish Holocaust Museum, is the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial. Opposite is St Vincent’s Hospital, which treated at least half of all Australia’s HIV patients, providing clinical care to those living with the virus and the final place of the many who died from it. Framing the other side is ‘The Wall’, the sandstone border of the old Darlinghurst jail, a notorious solicitation strip for ‘rent boys’ in the nineties.
Edden came out at seven, is on PrEP, knows the Bodyline sauna’s opening hours, but he didn’t know about The Wall. When Warren tells him about it, the man who followed him in a car there when he was 15, grinning with the window down, is suddenly reframed – not a random perv, but a character in an ongoing narrative.
Edden also didn’t know about the old toilet block, an open-secret sex beat, demolished in the eighties. Warren remembers it clearly. Edden’s first impulse is to romanticise what is lost. Warren knows better.
These sites and their stories bleed into their psyches, unsettling them both. For most of the play, it is only the voices of the two men we can hear through our headphones – from a whispered “meet my dick” to a bellow of despair. But there are also moments when the trauma of the past and its intolerable irreconcilability with the present becomes a throbbing, ocean-deep sonic roar.
Despite Edden’s displayed confidence, the two men’s patterns of behaviour are emotionally cagey and, in different ways, destructive to themselves and those closest to them. In the end, they don’t give each other reprieve. Not in an easy fuck, or anything more. The last we see of Edden is him vanishing around a corner on Victoria Street. Warren, his life forever changed after a fatal fumble on his phone, leaves soon after.
Unlit from all the angles we’re used to, and ever at a distance, neither Althouse nor Le Marquand inhabit their characters with startling authenticity. Brown’s script has equal parts humour and raw pain running through it, and the pair know better than to ever ham it up.
So complete is the naturalism, that neither of these talented actors return for the applause, which the audience – stunned from the unconventional kind of observation we’ve been participating in for almost an hour – is at a loss when to give.
What is our relation here, anyway? Are the two men ‘bugged’, and we are some hostile homophobic remnant, private or state, obsessively accruing evidence for the degeneracy of gay desire?
Or are we the pervs, the sick voyeurs, eavesdropping on a public intimacy that in many parts of Australia and the world remains fraught?
Made for the moment – both in its post-Marriage Equality preoccupations and its COVID safe design – Green Park is a provoking piece of contemporary theatre, and an ambitious start to Griffin Theatre Company’s 2021 season.