Punished for Conformity
If nudity and mid-20th-century furniture offend you, perhaps don’t see this play. Director Stephen Colyer talks to Garrett Bithell about queer tragedy The Paris Letter.
“Mardi Gras should always be a celebration of the right not to conform.”
So says Stephen Colyer, who is directing the Australian premiere of Jon Robin Baitz’s 2005 play The Paris Letter at Darlinghurst Theatre in conjunction with this year’s Mardi Gras festival. Opening literally with a bang, we witness the ruin of successful, deeply-closeted money-maker Sandy after his affair with Burt, a young protégé. From New York in the 60s to present-day Paris, the play, narrated by Sandy’s best friend and ex-lover Anton, traces the changing attitudes to sexuality over time through a deeply affecting morality tale.
“The Paris Letter is a thriller and a domestic tragedy,” Colyer tells SX. “The writing is so powerful and particular that it comes across as a modern tragedy. The play is about the downfall of a man who has lied to himself about who he really is, and how eventually that lie has a disastrous impact on all those close to him. Questions of personal integrity and honouring your authentic self are universal, however this case of self-deception is endorsed by the dominant attitude towards homosexuality in 1962. His sense of worth depends on conforming, prioritising rigour and self-denial over pleasure and self-approval.”
Tragedy is traditionally meted upon those who contravene the laws of God, man or nature. Baitz gives this formula a queer spin. Sandy is given the chance to live an openly-gay life, but he chooses the fake propriety of the closet. As Shakespeare punishes Macbeth for his crimes, so too is Sandy punished for his conformity. “The language echoes classical tragedy all over the place,” Colyer concurs. “The play is on one level about not staying in the closet, but more than that it is about valuing who you are enough to find out who that is in the face of pressures to live up to other people’s expectations of you.
“It can be a struggle to find support for unconventional life choices. Coming out takes courage. In my case it took me a long time to be honest with myself about who I was, so I can relate to Sandy’s dilemma.”
Colyer’s dynamic cast includes Peter Cousens, Susie Lindeman and Nicholas Papademetriou alongside two up and comers, Caleb Alloway and Damian Sommerlad.
“Being a Gen X guy, I’m in contact with the activists who fought for my civil rights and the Gen Y crowd who largely seems to know very little about how these rights were won. Kudos to films like Milk and plays like The Paris Letter for reminding audiences of what has been achieved – there is a perception that is society is so inclusive now that sexuality is a non-issue, but I wonder how conditional that inclusion is on toning down distinctiveness.”
Darlinghurst Theatre, Potts Point, February 24 – March 25. Tickets www.darlinghursttheatre.com.au.