‘The country has yet to come to terms with its Aids crisis’

Playwright Phillip McMahon’s new play follows a trio of close-knit LGBTQ+ friends

 Phillip McMahon: ‘I think Irish society has, in a way, put a full stop on gay people. We voted in marriage equality and that was it.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Phillip McMahon: ‘I think Irish society has, in a way, put a full stop on gay people. We voted in marriage equality and that was it.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Two years ago playwright Phillip McMahon tried to imagine an era before his time: the anarchic exuberance of an 1980s gay scene in Dublin, struggling to survive the horrors of the Aids pandemic. For his research he turned to several close older friends, many of them artists who electrified Dublin’s nightlife over the past three decades.

“I’m not young anymore either,” says McMahon, with frankness. Slightly past 40, it’s surprising to see this studied reflectiveness from a producer who, as one half of the queer outfit Thisispopbaby, mounted performance art clubs and festivals with a Club Kid’s understanding of the transgressive powers of a party. Now, the effects of time are on his mind. His new play Once Before I Go follows characters over four decades.

On a video call from his home, the wall behind McMahon is decorated with past achievements, including an abstract poster for the final Alternative Miss Ireland pageant, which he had a hand in producing. For that annual spectacle, he worked alongside artists influential to the scene such as drag queen Panti Bliss and DJ-archivist Tonie Walsh.

“I have a vantage point on to ‘80s gay culture from being surrounded by those people,” he says. In 2018, while producing Walsh’s biographical play I Am Tony Walsh, they poured over ephemera from decades’ past, reactivating memories for Walsh and expanding a vision of the past for McMahon.

The monochrome photograph used as the promotional image for Once Before I Go can feel like a portal into a previous world. It depicts a glamorous young person parading a gown made of bubble-wrap, with a gargantuan headpiece resembling a lemon slice, inside Dublin’s former gay nightclub Sides. McMahon thinks the photo could be from the first Alternative Miss Ireland, held in 1987.

“It’s easy to romanticise but some of the parties sound amazing,” he says.

Born in London to Irish parents, McMahon moved to Dublin in 1990. His description of his formative years in the late 1990s sound tinged with a surreal morbidity: “There’s something about that period when I started dancing in the George that is encoded in the DNA of people my age. Sex and death were intrinsically linked.”

It was interesting to think about how a moment in time in 1987 brings these people together with the shared objective of changing the law, to advocate and care for people who are sick

The most dangerous wave of the Aids pandemic was still in recent memory. Looking back, he thinks the tragedy slid into obscurity. “People had really fallen silent around that time. I don’t remember open discussions about how all these people died just a few years before,” he says.

If Ireland’s Aids crisis has often been glanced over in cultural remembrance, McMahon feels that in the years since the same-sex marriage referendum there’s been a danger of an end being given to that clause. “The play is asking: are gay people alright? I think Irish society has, in a way, put a full stop on gay people. We voted in marriage equality and that was it.

“The country has yet to come to terms with its Aids crisis, to reconcile with it. All that legacy and trauma, where does that go? Some people, their lover died 25 years ago. Where’s their marriage?” he says.

These were the ideas he was preoccupied with when Selina Cartmell, director of the Gate Theatre, invited McMahon to talk about ideas over a coffee. By the end of the conversation, she offered him a commission.

In a discussion about Aids-era narratives, it’s easy to single out several artworks which are centred on characters who are activists. The autobiographical play The Normal Heart, the popular documentary How to Survive a Plague and the French drama film 120 Beats Per Minute were all written by members of ACT UP, the grassroots group campaigning to end the pandemic. Other stories, such as Tony Kushner’s transcendentally miraculous two-part play Angels in America and Russell T Davies’s touching television drama It’s a Sin, take a cross-section view of citizens on the ground, battered left and right by their nation’s secret history.

“The characters in the play are a mix of all of those things. At certain points in their lives, they are activists,” says McMahon. Beginning in the recent present, Once Before I Go follows a trio of close-knit LGBTQ+ friends and traces their relationship back to the late 1980s, to the same dedicated community based out of Dublin’s Hirschfield Centre. “It was interesting to think about how a moment in time in 1987 brings these people together with the shared objective of changing the law, to advocate and care for people who are sick, and when they separate – where do they end up?” he says.

He considers the relentlessness of activism over time, how it might become too much for some people, or a torch-bearing duty to others. “I think it’s hard for everyone to keep the fight going. Over time, what’s important to them, things like their careers or becoming parents, changes. Long-time activists like Izzy Kamikaze and Tonie Walsh are unique”.

McMahon describes himself as coming from a working-class background where much of Dublin’s theatre industry was invisible to him, including the legend of Micheál Mac Líammóir and Hilton Edwards – founder-directors of the Gate Theatre, whose valiantly public relationship as lovers made them the country’s most well-known gay couple for decades.

The cast of Once Before I Go: Martha Breen, Matthew Malone, Desmond Eastwood, Sam Crerar, Sean Campion, Aisling O’Sullivan. Photograph: Agata Stoinska
The cast of Once Before I Go: Martha Breen, Matthew Malone, Desmond Eastwood, Sam Crerar, Sean Campion, Aisling O’Sullivan. Photograph: Agata Stoinska

Instead, McMahon discovered them through a more indirect – and all too appropriate – route. While out dancing one night, somebody told him the name of a new gay club in Dublin’s Powerscourt Townhouse, organised by Panti and designer Niall Sweeney. It was called Hilton Edwards. That may be a typical discovery within a community that, Colm Tóibín once said, grows up without history; and might better piece together events affecting their lives from within the walls of a gay bar than inside a classroom. McMahon approved when Cartmell shared the idea of transforming the theatre’s auditorium into a cabaret, the beloved subterrain of queer storytelling, and what he thinks is also a nod to the Gate Theatre’s origins, steeped in the same 1920s Dublin bohemia of the theatre’s often neglected founder: the cabaret impresario Madame Bannard-Cogley.

He speaks about the institution with reverence. “You realise the Gate has this fabulous queer foundation. Maybe Micheál and Hilton’s moment is yet to come,” he says, hopefully. If the Gate Theatre were to pay homage to its co-founders by becoming a centre for queer plays, Cartmell is already making progress. A few months before the pandemic, the theatre produced Faultline, a heartfelt play also set in Dublin’s 1980s gay scene, based on a real-life, chaotic episode of police misconduct towards the LGBTQ+ community.

McMahon seems similarly interested in hidden wounds and secret histories. Recently he was stirred by a story relating to the Aids Memorial Quilt, a folk-art project which originated in San Francisco and inspired an Irish version in 1990. Woven from individuals stitching the names of loved ones lost to Aids, it is a large-scale patchwork quilt which tours to different locations and transforms them into places for remembrance. The story, heard from a community volunteer, told of a support group of individuals in Dublin who decades ago rejected their relatives when they died from Aids. After spending years gnawed by guilt, they eventually sought the comfort of each other. “To the present day, when they meet up, they quilt together as a way to process their grief,” says McMahon.

Perhaps that sums up where we are now: somewhere between the sorry restlessness of hands unable to remain still, and the consoling gestures of queer commemoration. Art can nudge towards certain directions. “What I hope for any of my work is that, through engagement with the audience, you open up questions,” he says.

That could make Once Before I Go an intervention. McMahon’s been thinking about something Tonie Walsh said lately. “He was talking about how, with It’s a Sin and other artworks, society could be ready to look at this period. Tony said that he himself can see that time with clearer vision than he ever could in the past 30 years.

“There’s something about that gap in time,” says McMahon, his voice full of curiosity. With his new play, it’s as if he’s attempted to build a bridge across those decades of silence, hoping to arrive somewhere affording a clear view. This could finally be the moment to take a look.

Once Before I Go runs at the Gate Theatre from September 24th to October 23rd. gatetheatre.ie

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