Thrashing out a few solutions

New plays on Broadway and at the Royal Court take on gay coming of age and corporal punishment

Theatre
Needy, vain and yet a gregarious charmer: Jeremy Pope as Pharus in “Choir Boy” on Broadway (©MATTHEW MURPHY)

The insoluble tension of schooldays, from Tom Brown’s ordeal at the hands of Flashman to the tribulations of today’s cyber-bullied pupils, is that you are instructed to tell the truth, while the art of surviving secondary education relies on not being caught out as a snitch. Put that old hypocrisy in the context of a contemporary struggle between the tug of sexual identity and the dominant mores of the education system and you have the first big talked-about play on Broadway this year: Choir Boy, written by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, who won an Oscar for his poignant portrayal of gayromance in a working-class African-American community with Moonlight.

Pharus (Jeremy Pope) is a prodigiously gifted singer at an elite, predominantly black, prep school in Miami, tussling with prejudiced peers, dimwitted teachers and revelling in power of his extraordinary voice. Like Girl from the North Country,  the homage to Bob Dylan at London’s Old Vic in 2017, Choir Boy takes a slight dramatic construct (gay young man’s painful coming of age) and lets the mundane soar on the wings of soul and gospel music. The broader point is clear — the adult world, its expectations and education systems need to adjust to Pharus, not the other way round, though that is not going to happen easily.

The production is a transfer from the fringe to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, a consistently classy hive of thoughtful work on Broadway. This work owes a lot to the intricate crochet of choral pieces by musical director Jason Michael Webb and the fluid choreography of Camille Brown. I will personally endeavour to sing a sustained high C in public if it doesn’t cross the Atlantic to the West End. (Those with a keen eye for a coming hit might have seen the Off-Broadway version briefly at the Royal Court a few years back.)

It’s not that the plot is a big surprise. Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) is the resident homophobe, with the protection of Mr Marrow,  one of those headmasters who seems blithely unaware of anything unpleasant going on under their nose. There’s a nod to 2019 cultural awareness, in that the most tender scenes are not about homosexual love but the acceptance of difference. When a Waspy dorm-mate cuts Pharus’s hair under a single stagelight, we can read it as a moment that is sexually charged — or just a rare oasis of comradely serenity.

Gospel classics like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” bring the disputatious youths together in song, where prose fails their needs. Crucially, McCraney is secure enough in his writing of young gay men not to need to make Pharus heroic. His protagonist is needy, vain, strutting and, as the head dourly puts it, “operative”  while also a gregarious charmer. Will Pharus thrive, a Billy Elliot finding self-fulfilment through art? Or be somehow trammelled to live a crabbed, thwarted life? We are left on the cliff edge, but Choir Boy brings us some gorgeous music, food for thought and a big lump in the throat.

Mark Ravenhill, an eclectic British dramatist who defined gay themes on stage with Shopping and Fucking in the mid-1990s, revisits the moral anxieties of schooldays in The Cane at the Royal Court. It’s a well-timed foray into the question of how present-day moral sentiments judge past practices and how far judgment can fairly be meted out for actions which were socially acceptable at the time. The Cane is a three-handed treatment of corporal punishment seen through the eyes of a family thrown into conflict when a protest group (or is it a mob?) arrives to wreak revenge on the father, an ex-teacher who dealt out regular beatings to his pupils. I represent the last generation of children who could be caned in class and, like Ravenhill, I find myself still outraged at the thought and bemused that decent teachers thought this a good idea.

Alun Armstrong is the retiring deputy head in a tough comprehensive confronted by the resentments his corporal punishment has unleashed. Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker play a wife and daughter, caught up in the battles about rights, wrongs and power. There is only so much you can do theatrically with three characters and an implement for thrashing, so you get the point pretty early on — namely that moral norms change fast in our society  and leave many past practices in an awkward grey zone. Mainly, it reminded me to be thankful that the cane now belongs to the back of the drama props cupboard, not in an armoury to use against teenage pupils.

Speaking of awkward, unresolved issues, TV drama kicked off 2019 with Channel 4’s commission, Brexit: The Uncivil War. It set out to decipher the Vote Leave campaign’s success in the 2016 EU referendum campaign. Notwithstanding the star firepower of James Graham, Britain’s most prolific political playwright, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role playing Dominic “Dom” Cummings, the gifted oddball who honed the  effective “Take Back Control” message, it was a dead cert to annoy just about everyone.

The Guardian muttered darkly about it being “incumbent upon him [Graham], in an era besieged and almost defined by misinformation, not to add to the chaos”. Well, this really is rubbish. There is no such incumbency in drama and we will be in a pretty poor place as theatregoers if there
 is. Playwrights should treat current events in the way this wish to, not to fulfil some onerous and one-sided public information duty. Besides, if Bertolt Brecht can deal with the rise of Hitler via the sardonically flippant Arturo Ui, we can deal with watching Cumberbatch hum, furrow and curse his way to a referendum victory, without imagining that this is the full historical truth.

Having covered the campaign — which quickly descended into an exchange of bad facts on both sides — I thought that Brexit: The Uncivil War took the self-styled maverick a bit too much at his own judgment. To credit Cummings with genius divination of the popular will downplays the role of other, less spectacular players on the campaign. It also lets the politicians involved with the Leave campaign off the hook. They were not just bit-players, but movers of the plot, whose role and subsequent actions deserve  more searching treatment. Already, the campaign now feels very distant, so much so that Nigel Farage and Arron Banks in the rival Leave campaign looked like commedia dell’arte
figures. But the play did puncture the mood of cultural preachiness around Brexit. And for that reason alone, I’m backing Graham against the drama thought police.