Unrequited love, unequal love: these are the topics at play in Michael Dennis’ debut full-length work that is about to premiere at London’s Trafalgar Studios. The comedy, Dark Sublime, brings a new gay playwright into the spotlight and sees the theatrical return of a long absent British actress, Marina Sirtis, best known to sci-fi fans as Counsellor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Dark Sublime centres around an actress, Marianne (Sirtis), and her relationship with her best friend, plus a fan she encounters who adores the sci-fi show she used to act on forty years ago. Looking at what life is like for older gay women, the complexity of relationships for the whole queer community and the sense of belonging that comes with finding your place among the those that society dismisses, Dark Sublime promises to bring a funny, LGBTQ story to a mainstream audience though its mix of cult science-fiction and humour.
The Queer Review sat down with playwright Michael Dennis while final rehearsals were taking place, to talk about what led him to write and his melding of science fiction fandom with modern gay life with his new play.
“I think I knew I always wanted to work in theatre,” Dennis begins. “I was in a theatre group when I was teenager where we were encouraged to do everything. So if you were there primarily to act, you still had to rig some lights and work in the box office, and equally if you wanted to be technician at some point you had to put on a costume and be in a show. That was very good for getting a sense for the whole thing.”
“I knew I didn’t want to act, that seemed too precarious. I didn’t want it enough. So then, what do you do? I can tell the time, I’m organised, so I fell into stage management. I’ve been working in stage management for twenty years now and very much enjoying it. Nonetheless I knew at some point I wanted to become more creative and that boiled down to sitting down and starting to write.”
During his time as a stage manager, Dennis has worked with a number of writers, including the revered American playwright Tony Kushner (Angels In America), on the premiere production of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre. “It was great fun to work on, he’s a lovely man,” Dennis says with a laugh. “But not a man to stop and ask directions from if you’re in a hurry because he’s a talker as you can guess!”
Those years of working on other people’s plays taught him a thing or two about how to write his own.
“I certainly wrote Dark Sublime understanding the limitations of staging. Having never written a full length play before and wanting it to be able to be staged, I didn’t write a six hour epic involving 60 actors. I wrote something to be economically viable.”
The strong cast, which includes Doctor Who alumna Jacqueline King, Sophie Ward (an LGBTQ activist in her own right), Simon Thorp, Kwaku Mills and the voice of Mark Gatiss, came together serendipitously.
Mark Gatiss is no stranger to LGBTQ stories, comedy, fandom or sci-fi. In a career that includes being the co-creator of BBC’s Sherlock, a founding member of The League of Gentlemen, a long time fan, writer and actor for Doctor Who, touring a revival of The Boys In The Band around
the UK with his husband Ian Hallard, dropping in on Game of Thrones and more; Gatiss is undoubtedly among the most influential gay men in British media. In 2017 he developed Queers for the BBC, a series of short gay monologues looking back at 50 years of the ‘Sexual Offences Act’ in the UK for which Michael Dennis wrote A Grand Day Out. Performed by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk, Bandersnatch), it was about a young gay man’s first experience with public protesting in 1994 when campaigners fought to equalise the age of consent. While working together on Queers, Dennis had shown Gatiss an early version of Dark Sublime.
Dennis picks up the story, “At a birthday party, Mark then suggested the play to Andrew Keates [Dark Sublime’s director] as something he might want to look at, as he’s a fan of science fiction. Andrew thought of Marina, who he’d met at a convention and they instantly hit it off. They’d stayed in contact and Andrew had kept an eye out for play she could be in, so he brought the script to her. Then from having Marina attached to it, Andrew was able to get the right producers involved. People had seen Queers so my name wasn’t coming totally out of the blue either.”
Dark Sublime is a funny love letter to the British science fiction of the 70s and 80s, deeply rooted in the world of Doctor Who, which, like many science-fiction shows, has always provided a safe-haven to LGBTQ fans.
“I suppose the standard line is that science fiction offers an alternative vision of the world to audiences. And if you’re living in a world that feels hostile then that can feel welcoming. Speaking for myself, I think there was also something attractive about The Doctor not being a conventional macho hero, not being a gun toting action man. And there’s a camp sensibility to some of those programmes too,” he laughs. “There’s some of that in Dark Sublime, how could there not be.”
“I’m quoting Marina, she said the play is so true to her lived experience she feels it’s a bit uncanny. There are so many parallels with experiences she’s had and relationships she had that she’s practically accused me of stalking her! While there are many parallels to her life and people are coming because it’s ‘Counsellor Troi from Star Trek‘, there’s going to be plenty of
stuff they may not expect.”
Dark Sublime runs at London’s Trafalgar Studios from Tuesday 25th June until Saturday 3rd August 2019. For more information on the production and to purchase tickets head to the Trafalgar Studios website.