To characterise the differences of repertoire and sensibility between Dublin's Gate and Abbey theatres, city wags used to refer to them as Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Gate, which began life in 1928, earned its "Sodom'' sobriquet thanks to its founding directors, Micheal Mac Liammoir and Hilton Edwards. In a society that did not decriminalise homosexuality until the 1990s, they lived as an openly gay "married" couple. Micheal, in particular, formulated his own rules. Born in England and about as Irish as Oxford marmalade, he reinvented himself as the quintessence of Irishness, winning awards, medals and honorary degrees for his Gaelic writing as well as renown for his portrayal of another larger-than-life gay export (and genuine Irishman) Oscar Wilde.
Now receiving its British premiere in a handsome and haunting production by Gavin McAlinden, Frank McGuiness's play Gates of Gold is not a straightforward bio-job. Instead, it comes across as though it were the fifth act in the high drama of a relationship based on theirs. The story follows the last days of Gabriel, a flamboyant Mac Liammoir-like actor come-designer. Making things up has been a way of live for him, and, as he awaits, wracked with bowel cancer, the final curtain, he remains incorrigible.
Dispensing Wildean witticisms ("dying is rather like being stuck in a traffic jam in Limerick"), he plasters on enough sap to satisfy a pantomime dame. He treats his young nurse (Aoife McMahon) to so many contradictory versions of his origin that she asks: "How many fathers and mothers do you have?'' His reply: "As many as is needed to survive them.''
A bulky, raddled William Gaunt turns in a magnificent performance in this role, affording you piercing glimpses of the desperate, hunted man inside the painted queen. Bickering and bantering with his more introverted partner, Conrad (fine John Bennett), Gabriel pungently evokes the world of gay men at the time.
Around him orbits the nurse (whose work with the dying is a clunkily established compensation for having walked away from her twin brother in a fatal car crash), his sister, Kassie, (Josie Kidd), who also has difficulties with the truth, and his disturbed gay nephew (Alan Turkington), who succumbs to the sexual advances of Conrad.
If theatre can be a hackneyed metaphor for the transitory nature of achievement, the special circumstances of these men (who left the Gate as their offspring) lend it a fresh poignancy in a flawed but touching play.
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