Two men from different worlds fall in love in the early sixties. What would it take for them to make a life together? This new production of Peter Gill’s 2001 play is directed by Robert Hastie with a beautiful set designed by Peter McKintosh that brings us both the intimacy of an old cottage and the windy wilderness of rural Yorkshire.
George (Ben Batt) is a farmhand and amateur actor living with his elderly mother (Lesley Nicol) who’s stopped going to rehearsals for a local production of the York Mysteries. John (Jonathan Bailey) is the London-based assistant director who shows up at the cottage one evening looking for the missing actor. Ben Batt’s George is a sexy country mouse and Jonathan Bailey’s town mouse John oozes sophistication and self-consciousness. Hastie conveys the thrill of forbidden desire as the two men carefully navigate their way around George’s family until they are alone and the sudden switch in their behaviour, George’s straight talk – he runs back for a jar of Vaseline – takes us by surprise. Gill’s writing has a rhythmic quality that makes us hear the emotion. The play begins with George and John already at an impasse. Their yearning, their tenderness towards each other is in each word, each question, the desire to stretch their time together, how they love even just looking at each other.
The title of the play refers to a particular set of medieval plays, part of the York Mystery cycle, who used Yorkshire vernacular in the telling of the Passion of the Christ. “I live here,” George tries almost desperately to explain. It is near impossible for ambitious, intellectual John to get it. He asks George if it doesn’t bother him that his mother “never says anything. None of them.” Gill carefully draws us into the world of the cottage. People are walking in and out, making tea, folding clothes, putting on shirts, eating pie. They talk about whether George likes custard or Carnation milk. Whether it’s George’s sister Barbara (Lucy Black) wanting to drag her husband Arthur (Matthew Wilson) home after he’s said aye to pie, or the watchful eyes of their teenage son Jack (Brian Fletcher) or the brave and lonely Doreen (Katie West), they are all failing to connect somehow but unlike John they don’t need to explain it. There is peace if not happiness in having a place and knowing it.
The cows, the sheep, the grass have a right to exist in these lands and so does this family. No justification required. It is this deep sense of grounding that gives George his power. John derives his power from his education, his class. He can show up with no introduction at the cottage. John is charming but he also expects to be welcome. George is open about his desire. John has the bashfulness of his background. “I’m nervous” he admits. He tells George not “to be vulgar”.
They want to make a life together. “You come up here.” George asks him. “Get a job in York with the theatre. Live here.”
John wants George to move to London. “Become an actor. I’d help you.” He tells him how talented he is. How things have changed. George doesn’t believe him: “I couldn’t be in Shakespeare, me.”
This play written seventeen years ago hits us with a very contemporary dilemma. How do two people who love each other – and yet have a clear sense of their own individual destinies – build a life together? In the early sixties (or seventies, or even nineties), if this had been a heterosexual couple, the woman, no matter her background, would have most likely yielded. The couple would have moved and settled according to the man’s desires. Today a woman is as likely to hold her ground as a man. The power struggle between George and John is heartbreaking. Is this the future we are contemplating, men and women? One in which no love is worth the plunge into the unknown because we are all too attached to the sources of our individual power? Perhaps for George and John the writing was too clear on the wall. Neither thought they would survive in the other’s world. It was the early sixties after all: horizons were smaller, more constrained. It was still a man’s world. The word compromise didn’t occur.
The York Realist continues at the Donmar Warehouse until March 24. It then moves on to the Sheffield Crucible from March 27 to April 7.