The actor chatted to Emma Clarendon about the revival of Philip Osment’s play This Island’s Mine at the King’s Head Theatre.
Hi Tom, what can audiences expect from This Island’s Mine? With a cast of seven playing eighteen characters, it’s an epic, expansive play which takes the audience from the dance floors of 80s gay clubs, to the Deep South and the miners’ strikes in the North of England. Oh, and there’s a monologuing cat called Vladimir.
Why do you think now is particularly the right time to revive the play? Even though it was written 30 years ago I think audiences will find it surprisingly resonant with a London in 2019. The play was originally written in response to Section 28 and here we are 30 years later still questioning the validity of teaching children about LGBT+ relationships and families with recent protests outside primary schools in Birmingham.
What was it about the play that made you want to be involved with this production? As a (relatively) young queer person, I find it so galvanising to be part of a play that depicts gay and lesbian characters with such complexity – their lives are multifaceted and their trails go beyond their sexuality. Ever since I found out about Gay Sweatshop (who originally staged the play) I have felt indebted to them paving the way for LGBT+ theatre in the UK and I feel very proud to be picking up the mantle from them.
What do you think we can learn from This Island’s Mine? What the playwright Philip Osment does beautifully in this play is bring so much nuance to the characters. Within the LGBT+ community the lived experience of individuals varies so much. And long before conversations about intersectionality was commonplace, Osment challenges the perceived homogeneity of the gay experience. It explores how, amongst other identities, race and class play a major factor when it comes down to who is at the sharper end of homophobia. And this is a conversation that, still today, often gets missed – even when we call the LGBT+ people “a community”, in some ways we’re forcing us into a monolith rather than the rainbow we know ourselves to be. At one point in the play we see Selwyn, a young black gay man, struggle to confide in his white boyfriend Mark (the character I play) after he has been beaten up by the police. And it’s such a tender moment because Mark says he understands – after all, he knows what’s it’s like to experience homophobia, in the play we see him being fired from his job for being gay – but ultimately he has to confront that Selwyn’s reality as a black, gay man places him often at the sharper end of violence.
Do you think much progress has been made in terms of attitudes towards the LGBT+ community? In many ways there has been huge progress made in terms of attitudes towards the LGBT+ community. I run workshops in schools about challenging gender stereotypes and even just the amount of out young queer people I see in schools nowadays makes it feel like a very different landscape to when I was growing up. That being said, I think we have to be careful that doesn’t erase the hardship that so many LGBT+ still face – in particular when talking about trans, gender nonconforming or non binary people when their very legitimacy to existence is allowed to be the subject of debate. As someone who identifies a gender nonconforming (I use they/them pronouns) I so often find myself in spaces having to justify my right to identify (and so live my life) as I choose. And whilst we have a so many more queer role models, the default is still cisgendered, white and male and I would love to see a wider representation of the full gamut of the LGBTQI+ community. Without a doubt gay, bi and lesbian people feel a lot more accepted in today’s society but I still think we have a long way to go. Acceptance should be a baseline and what I would like to see people working towards is celebration.
If people are thinking about coming along to see the production – why should they book a ticket? This Island’s Mine weaves together a tapestry of outsiders who are on their journey from surviving to thriving. And now, more than ever, we need narratives of hope. Audiences will leave enriched by the legacy of a play with a thirty -year history and buoyed with the potential to make a better future.
By Emma Clarendon
This Island’s Mine plays at the King’s Head Theatre from the 15th May until the 8th June. For more information visit: https://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/