All the way from South Africa comes Between, a play that frankly explores sexuality and relationships. Having already performed the piece in their native country, as well as in Dublin, Edinburgh and Brighton, Between now comes to London at the Kings Head.
This is visceral, provocative and incredibly brave theatre. The narrative juxtaposes three contrasting male relationships: two young boys experimenting with their sexuality; a young student falling for his teacher whilst learning to recite Shakespeare sonnets; and an adult couple experiencing opposing views of sex. Under the overarching view of a single protagonist, we witness the gradual development of sexuality through a series of amusing, painful and heart-breaking vignettes. The various characters are depicted by the two-strong cast of Nicholas Campbell and Oskar Brown (who also wrote the play). The chemistry between them in each scene is palpable, brimming with believable sexual tension as their physicality develops from boisterous boys to solemn, troubled adults. The minimal staging, meanwhile, only heightens the intimacy of the piece.
What’s most striking about the play is its intense honesty and, at times, brutality. Brown, in his writing, doesn’t shy away from challenging the audience with troubling issues. A young boy screams at another calling him a faggot and beating him into submission (a typical schoolyard scene many can relate to, whether as victim or witness). The adult couple develop from tender and loving, to one slapping the other and demanding to be “fucked”. The student-teacher relationship is perhaps the most interesting: whilst the end result is predictable, the sympathetic portrayal from the two actors is electric, whilst the use of Shakespeare sonnets adds a healthy dose of romanticism. Their love may be forbidden, but it offers a contrasting innocence to that of the boys and the bitterness of the adults. No matter how far the limits are pushed, however, Brown’s writing is consistently sensitive to the subject matter.
Above all, the varying situations are easily relatable – no matter what your sexuality. The voyage of self-discovery, infatuation with a teacher and a relationship hinging on sex: these are all themes that we’ve experienced at one time or another. Switch one male character to a female and the play would lose none of its impact. Love, in its various guises, is at the core of Between; it is a universal notion. After all, why should homosexual relationships be any different?
Watch: Between runs at the Kings Head Theatre throughout August.
I was lucky enough to chat to writer/performer Oskar Brown after the show about the meaning behind the play and its gradual evolution…
What can audiences expect from Between?
We always say they come to watch love, sex and everything in-between. It’s an exploration of sexuality and love and the weird part between the two of them. It’s about relationships, it’s about sex, it’s about how people find each other. We do say that instead of a dress rehearsal we have an undress rehearsal!
And why the title Between?
When I first sat down, I decided I wanted to write about the relationships between people and what happens there, because they’re fascinating. I’m only 28 now but I’ve probably already seen too much!
How did writing the play first come about?
Once again relationships. It’s just interesting how sometimes you have those relationships where you’re the one who wants to have a lot of sex and they won’t answer, then suddenly it’s the other way around and you’re like “where do I sit? What’s happening there? Where does that come from? Maybe it comes from when you’re younger?” So I explored with Nicholas and some other friends, we talked about sexuality when we were younger and crushes we had. Then there’s that exciting line between the teacher-student relationship, sometimes you have that teacher you’re excited about and you wonder what would happen there.
Did you specifically set out to write a ‘gay play’?
No, I set out to write about sex and sexuality and it just happened. I originally thought it would be a straight play, I envisaged it to be performed by a guy and a girl. I was like “OK I’m not going to complain, it works better this way”. I don’t believe in labelling someone or something as gay, so we’ve actually decided on a new term: we say people are ‘queer cultured’, which means you don’t happen to be gay, but maybe you like to dress nicely, you like good food, you go to clubs that aren’t aggressive and full of male testosterone with men competing for women, but you’re not necessarily gay.
What made you decide to include Shakespeare sonnets?
Originally I wanted it to be about piano actually - it was definitely about teaching something. And then our director Geoffrey said to me “I don’t know anything about the piano, you don’t know anything about the piano, let’s do something that we know about. We do Shakespeare - let’s make it about sonnets”. We supplemented the original script with Geoffrey teaching Nicholas how to do the sonnet, so we used bits and pieces of that and structured the script around it.
Did you guys all meet in Cape Town? What’s your working relationship like?
We did, Nick and I went to the same University in Cape Town and Geoffrey is the head of the drama department, so that’s where we met him and we’re his pupils. The relationship is interesting how it’s changed because on one level there used to be the student-teacher relationship, but we’ve worked for so long together that we became colleagues, and now we’re friends as well. Sometimes he wants us to do something and shifts back into his teacher-student role. We jokingly call him Dad because when we’re travelling around we look like his two younger sons, or his two younger lovers - that’s also happened!
So that’s informed the play?
Oh a lot.
Have your experiences in South Africa affected the play at all?
We didn’t set out to make it a South African play. Some things we took out: there’s a moment when one character asks “what were you drinking that day?”, he used to say brandy and coke and no-one anywhere else in the world drinks brandy and coke, it’s very South African! So we decided to make that a little more generalised [they now say vodka]. We don’t make a show of hiding our accents or anything like that.
Has the play evolved as you’ve continued touring?
Yeah it keeps evolving, just some of the jokes we’ve added. We’re now working on creating a version that other people can read with all the jokes in. The original script makes for very dry reading as there’s so many little things we’ve changed and that we do in the performance. We’re now making sure there’s a record of how it’s actually performed! It has changed heaps and it’s always changing. For this run we have an extra monologue that wasn’t in beforehand, so we’re always adding and refining.
You’ve performed Between internationally, have audience reactions differed from place to place?
Not that much actually. What’s been really nice is how well received it’s been wherever it’s gone, showing that it doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay or lesbian or whatever. They’ve just been like “this is cool, we get this”. We’ve had lesbian women come up to us saying “wow the relationship between the young boys at the beginning, that’s totally me!” That’s really exciting, that no matter where we go in the world everyone’s the same.
Is it important to you to attract a varied audience?
I don’t think so, we get a lot of people who see the show who don’t normally come to the theatre which is so cool!
And lastly what’s next for the Between boys?
We’ve got this run and if it goes well we’ll come back again next year. Nicholas has moved here with an acting visa (he’s looking for an agent!) and I’m working in film in Berlin so heading back to that.