Theatre: You don't pay the fruit...

Brad Fraser has written a play about an openly gay politician. Fortunately, Martin Yesterday still has things to hide.
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The Independent Culture
When it was announced a couple of years ago that Brad Fraser, the award-winning cult Canadian dramatist, had signed a contract with Disney, one's first thought was: what on earth is he going to write for them: 101 Bisexuals? In plays such as Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, and Poor Super Man, Fraser has situated his dark, laconically witty art on the slippery boundaries between diverse sexual orientations and identities. Whether charting the travails of a transsexual denied the operation s/he so desperately craves because s/he's dying of Aids in Poor Super Man, or inserting a submissive gay man with a cleft palate into The Ugly Man (his hilarious lust-in-dust B-movie makeover of Middleton's Changeling), Fraser has never been one to compromise, or to stint on graphic depictions of naked coupling. The Disney news was rather like hearing that Mark Ravenhill had been hired to present Blue Peter.

So when I rang him in Canada to talk about the English premiere of Martin Yesterday - his latest stage piece, which opens next week at Manchester's Royal Exchange - I was curious to know how this odd conjunction had fared. All too predictably it was a case of a movie written, paid for and not made.

"It's about a mad scientist who is magically able to change people's faces. The title was Beauty," he said.

Something tells you that the author of The Ugly Man, a play that's mischievously astute about the perverse attractions of the repulsive ("I don't mind looking at your face," whispers the adoring gay character. "That won't be necessary," replies the butch, disfigured bisexual, none too cryptically) does not conceive of beauty in any fun-for-all-the-family, Beauty-and- the-Beast sort of way.

Peter Hall remarks in his Diaries that you can learn an awful lot about a playwright's creative personality from listening to the way he himself speaks. This is certainly true of Fraser, who has a deep, burly voice which (a bit like Gore Vidal's) is in piquant contrast to the knowing camp of what is being said. His speech rhythms have a similar flouncy curtness to the exchanges in the plays, as when, in Poor Super Man, a married character objects to his estranged gay artist lover exhibiting nude paintings of him, and tries to assert his rights.

"I inspired them," he pleads.

"You don't pay the fruit when you do a still life," comes the succinctly stinging reply, with its pointed pun on "fruit".

Fraser's wit is much more good humoured than that, though. Confessing that he has always been imaginatively drawn to outsiders, he reveals that his first teenage effort as a playwright was the helpfully entitled Two Pariahs at a Bus-stop Late at Night: "I mean, don't you almost feel like you've seen it."

Though the dramas to date have had an implicitly political edge, the title character in Fraser's new piece, Martin Yesterday, is the first career politician to feature in his work. The play follows the Prozac- propped fortunes of Matt, the young married man who was forced out of the closet in Poor Super Man. Now a successful comic strip artist, heembarks on a relationship with Martin, an appreciably older Toronto alderman. The most egregious gay politician in modern drama is the virulent real- life homosexual homophobe Roy Cohn, to whom Tony Kushner gave mythic dimensions in Angels in America, and who made just about the toughest figure imaginable for gay people to acknowledge as one of their own. Martin Yesterday is, by contrast, openly gay and HIV-positive and, therefore, potentially prime paragon material.

As Matt's female business partner remarks: "I read an article that says people are actually more likely to vote for an out gay politician than a straight one, because they think the out person has more integrity."

But Martin Yesterday seems to have emerged from the closet to make more room for the unsavoury secrets he needs to bundle back in there. The instinct to help fellow homosexuals, admirable in his public life, becomes perverted in his private life to the kind of charity that creates mutual exploitation and heartless dependency.

Martin's taste, moreover, is for very young men such as Rex, the pan- sexual hustler with the coke problem who pays for his bed in Martin's apartment by letting him play abusive "daddy" fantasies with him.

"I'm not afraid to say what I see, whether it's pleasant or not," comments Fraser, justifying his depiction of Martin, whose self-compromised political career he views as an illustration of how "we lack leadership with true integrity. Nobody seems to live up to their own expectations of themselves."

A strip-cartoon artist on the side, Fraser uses comic-book characters as symbols and metaphors, as when Super Man's concealed alien status provided, in that eponymous play, a sardonic parallel for the central character's marooned feeling of living a lie in the midst of strangers.

In Martin Yesterday, the parallel is more overtly political. Matt invents the Deceptive Elf ("this spy from Quebec who's trying to find out how English Canada really feels about Quebeckers"). A drama about partnerships, commitment and separation is played against a background of cultural separatism in a nation that is itself like an unhappy, disputatious couple. Rows at the drawing-board in Matt's office raise the whole contentious issue of how far, if at all, oppressed minorities are interchangeable as metaphors of each other. One "minority" that perhaps hasn't had its due in his work is that of women. Fraser's female characters tend to be under-written, saddled with partner problems that are the palest shadow of those experienced by the men and given to looking at the gay community with a peevish mixture of envy and puzzled resentment.

I'm pleased to hear, though, that Fraser has resurrected Violet, gay Matt's slow-on-the-uptake wife from Poor Super Man, in a forthcoming play, Snake in the Fridge, a piece he refers to, with a tantalising laugh, as "about a group of young people on the fringes of the sex industry who have a great time in a haunted house". And what has happened to poor divorced Violet? "She's become a pornographer."

From her previous CV, this would seem about as likely as her becoming the Dalai Lama. But maybe the highly talented Fraser has now graduated to the point where he can start to use women characters to test those sexual boundaries.

`Martin Yesterday' runs at the Royal Exchange in Manchester from 13 Jan to 6 Feb (0161-833 9833)

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