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Strangers In Between

"Shame needs to be shaken off"

Tommy Murphy reflects on the past and the personal in the British and Australian revivals of his breakthrough play.

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Tommy Murphy: Warts and All

Date: 17 Jan 2018

I suppose they all know by now that I’ve had anal warts.

Look, it was years ago. I probably shouldn’t be bringing it up here online but, anyway … I learnt a lesson at the time, not about STIs and the smirks of an uncaring GP; I learnt a lesson about writing for the stage.

Always tell the truth.

I try to remind myself of that lesson as I collaborate with producers and directors for screen and stage since. Are we telling the truth?

I’m aware I’ve sometimes forgotten the rule. A measure of it can be whether you feel personally exposed. The requirement is not to be constantly introspective but some discomfort that you’re mentioning unmentionables can be a good sign. That’s the lesson I cling to after writing Strangers in Between.

So, I’m in a theatre this week in London’s West End where Strangers In Between, my little comedy about the kid who gets warts on his arse, is going down very well. The theatre’s full and loud. I’m eavesdropping in the foyer at interval. And no one knows – mercifully – that I’m the person who experienced many aspects of the story and documented them in a play. Warts and all.

In the play, the character of Shane says, “I’m getting street wise but. I never walk through parks and I walk in the middle of the road so you can see people jumping out of bushes.”

The audience here in London laugh at the kid’s ridiculousness, yet I really believed exactly that when I moved to Sydney from Queanbeyan. I suspected everyone might be out to do me over. “Only time people lock up their homes in [Queanbeyan’s] when the show’s in town.”

My rescue was that I am gay. There were mentors to guide me, reprimand me and tutor me.

The character of Peter swills white wine in the play. Watching him in a preview performance, I could almost taste the gallons I drank with one older treasured friend. Years later, I’d return the favour of his care and accompany him to dry out. He’s now a decade sober and I like to think I helped to get him there.

There were also those lovely hedonists who opened doors to fun and the possibility of partaking without fucking shame or fucking judgement for the first time in your life.

Shame needs to be shaken off when you’ve grown up hearing loud, condemning voices in positions of authority at school, in politics, in the media.

For some, though not me, those dominant figures of disapproval are closer to home. For Shane they are violent and trigger his escape to the city.

I can only speculate why Strangers in Between has been lucky enough to not only score a West End transfer but also a new Australian production at precisely the same time.

It was written when I was 24, and premiered in 2005 at Griffin in a beautiful production by director David Berthold. It is a period piece now: young Shane arrives in Sydney from Goulburn with no mobile phone. That doesn’t happen now. He says ‘excellent’ in a manner we no longer do, as well as ‘festy’ – a word I’m not sure anybody says at all now.

He’d have Grindr in 2018. He’d use it to educate himself, to connect with others and obtain some of what he’s craving. And we wouldn’t have a play.

When Strangers in Between was written, Shane’s paranoia had an element of satire about the heightened state of fear around us. It was the era of being alert but not alarmed. The play isn’t about any of that on stage tonight in London and nor will it be in rehearsals for the new production in Melbourne this week and Sydney, next month.

There must be some reason two directors – Adam Spreadbury-Maher in London and Daniel Lammin in Melbourne – have both decided the play is about today. That’s probably not for me to try to answer but I am speculating that it’s because now is a moment to celebrate the tenderness within the queer community.

This is not a story about marriage, thank goodness, because we’re all so tired of that distraction. It is about togetherness.

The play pays tribute to that particular nurture that occurs in the queer community. We generally look out for each other. We’re also a community linked by sexuality so sex is a factor, sometimes an agenda, sometimes an interference, mostly a pleasure.

The play enjoys that fraught navigation. The characters struggle to decipher who they are to each other. Are they in each other’s lives to fuck, to form a kind of family, or for something in between?

This play is also about an emergent, young generation. It is not only about the duty of care towards them but a call to let the younger shift the worldview of the older.

Shane conquers his paranoia. He evolves to achieve wisdom. I can think of no moment more acute than now to be listening to the generation entering adulthood, particularly the queer ones. We all have much to learn about their promise of a more accepting society, of humanity’s true gender fluidity and of properly revealing the world’s power dynamics.

A tension creeps into a scene in Strangers in Between that I don’t think was there on the page when it was written or in that first production.

Shane misconstrues what he wants from the older man, Peter. Their affectionate banter tips into an erotic flirtation. Shane ventures further, or maybe it’s Peter urging it forth. Is this a confusion of desire or a deliberate manipulation for sexual gratification?

The moment is not clear-cut but it is somehow now intensified by the context in which it is being played. We watch the scene with a new set of eyes, not my doing.

There are other things in the play that are a portal to another time. The characters speak of hair gel and trousers with needless pockets. They meet in the Bourbon and Beefsteak in Kings Cross – a bar that stays open.

I also see private, secret things in this portal. Playwrights pillage the events and lives around them. Seeing a work over a decade after it was written becomes a kind of diary of the things you robbed from life.

Shane describes the body that turns him on: “He has a little bit of soft hair in like a ‘V’ here. I think he clippers it but it’s grown a bit so now it’s soft.”

That’s my fiancé’s then 23-year-old chest he’s describing. That patch, now a thicket, has spread and I’ve grown to like it even more. Dane won’t like me writing this but he has had time to come to terms with me being indiscreet. It’s my first impression of Dane’s eyes recorded in scene four: “Oh and, he so knows that his eyes are really good. He shows them off so much. Like just looks at you.”

I pause. I hope this isn’t reading as self-satisfied. I am proud of this play – how un-Australian to say so – but I am not sure I can even claim to be the person who wrote it.

When the London publisher, Nick Hern Books, recently enquired if I’d like to do any revisions I realised I mustn’t. I cut a few things but if I tampered with the voice and obsessions of the play I’d be faking it. It’s from another time, another perspective.

There are ghosts preserved in the play that only I can see. The character of Ben describes a dog called Rocky who is “getting heaps fat now. Dad feeds her. He’s been giving her two-minute noodles every night and Woollies’ chickens on the weekends if they’re reduced.”

That was my brother’s dog, no longer with us, probably a coronary. Will’s sister is leaving Sydney because of property prices; that’s in the play because my sister Brighid needed a bigger home at the time to grow her family. A pang of sadness at her recent loss to breast cancer hits me in the theatre but no one knows the weird guy in the audience wiping a tear so that’s okay.

Today, reflecting on all this in a Fleet Street cafe, I’m transported back to a phone call at the turn of the century.

I called my late father to ask for the Medicare number because, “It’s like warts.” “Warts?” “It’s a papilloma virus.” That exchange adhered itself to the dialogue in scene three. I told Dad, “it’s on my arse”.

When he stopped laughing, he assured me that everything was okay. I said to Dad, “And, Phil, probably don’t tell Mum, hey.” He advised me what to do and how to get my own Medicare number. He said it pleased him that I felt I could tell him things. Fuck, I miss him now. At least the play bears a signature of his care. He even expressed his happiness with a chuckle that I was enjoying life in the city, “…but be careful, mate, and, yes, no need to tell Mum.” (I wonder if she’ll work out how to Google this article. I’ll print it out for her and post it to Queanbeyan. Playwrights don’t get to keep secrets).

I put the phone down from Dad and my imagination went to what life might be like without such loving, ‘excellent’ parents or to be severed from family as so many people are. That alternative terrified me. I’d probably have to forge a surrogate family in the city. I’d likely turn to the gays for rescue. Shane was conceived in that phone call.

Strangers in Between plays at Trafalgar Studios on London’s West End until February 3.

The new Australian production opens at FortyFiveDownstairs, Melbourne, on January 24 for Midsumma festival and transfers to Sydney’s Seymour Centre for the Mardi Gras Festival from February 14. 

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