Jeremy Goldstein’s Truth to Power Café and a new production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing straddle this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. For The Queer Review, Goldstein speaks with Harvey about his now classic play and what it means to him to see it revived.
Jonathan Harvey is among our greatest living storytellers. His theatrical love story Beautiful Thing debuted in 1993, the same year Madonna released her Erotica album. Both flew in the face of the stigma captured with pin point accuracy by Russell T Davies in It’s A Sin, and spoke up for us and our queer community at a time when we were being blamed for the AIDS pandemic.
Never had I felt so empowered by a play, than when I saw the original production of Beautiful Thing. I fell madly in love with its author Jonathan. I wanted to write him a letter and tell him what it meant to me, but it was no use. I was a lowly box office clerk selling theatre tickets to tourists on Leicester Square, and Jonathan was, well – all over the British press.
Jonathan would go on to write a staggering twenty stage plays including Closer to Heaven and Musik with Pet Shop Boys, and the BAFTA-nominated sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. But the play which started it all, is currently on as part of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and I’m about to premiere my own show Truth to Power Café at Sydney’s Riverside Theatres in March.
As fate would have it, we’ve both grown up to be a couple of joyous cunts on the verge of old queerdom, and proudly so.
Recently I caught up with Jonathan and this is what he had to say…
Jeremy Goldstein: What interests you more, life or art?
Jonathan Harvey: (laughs) “LIFE!”
And why is that?
(Laughs again) “What kind of a question is that?! I love art and I love creating art and being involved in it, but life is more important. I love my family and friends, and how you live your life is probably more important.”
Do you miss the London that spawned Beautiful Thing, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and Closer to Heaven?
“Yes, but I feel separate to it now as I’m on the wrong side of 40 and I don’t go to gay pubs or bars anymore as I did in my twenties. I think it’s sad the pubs are closing but there is an inevitability to it too. London is different from when I was younger and sometimes change is good. Maybe it’s me being old and nostalgic but all the interesting places are slowly disappearing and those places are full of memories for me. It’s a difficult one because how do you stand in the way of big business? These people come over and buy a swathe of London streets, and turn them into homogenised apartment blocks. I think it’s a shame.”
It’s the same in Sydney. The gay world that we came of age in just doesn’t exist anymore. In those days we had a lot to fight for including laws around the age of consent, and Thatcher’s vile Section 28 at the height of AIDS. How did that legislation affect you and those around you?
“As a teacher during those days it loomed over you constantly, even if it never stopped me being open and honest. The more positive thing was that in those days there was sense of community. In England we pulled together to save the onslaught of what the Tories and Thatcher were doing to us and it was either sink or swim. These days the concept of Tory life is much more diverse and there is a greater interest from politicians in the younger gay community which there wasn’t in those days. Also these days; it’s how interested we’ve become in the plight of LGBTQI+ people as a country. I think it’s easy for me to say that as a gay man, but I think it’s still very hard for transgender people. Hopefully we’re starting to see a moment where trans people are beginning to be treated with more respect, so I suppose I would identify that as a more pressing concern.”
What do you imagine Jamie and Ste of Beautiful Thing to be doing now?
“I have absolutely no idea. I know it makes me sound like a cunt and a tired old hag in the corner of a pub somewhere…”
Join the club (we laugh).
“…But I wrote Beautiful Thing nearly 30 years ago and I’m fascinated that a play about coming out in the 90s is still being revived to this day.”
What are the main differences between writing for stage and TV?
“The main difference is in the approach. By the time you write a script for television you’ve had to meet in teams of people about a million times, so there is a rigidity to it. The people you’re writing it for know more or less exactly what’s going to be in that script, they know the order of the scenes and which cast members are in it, what the budget is, et cetera.”
“When you’re writing a play it’s much freer. You may have told the theatre what it might be about, but you’re chiselling away at a piece of wood until you get a beautiful shape.”
“There is a lot more money involved in TV too, so as a consequence there is a lot more thinking and planning and proving yourself in TV than in theatre. Also with most TV production, it’s about the people in the room who think they can do your job better than you, it’s their ideas that are more important, whereas in theatre the writer is God and you can overrule lots of things.”
Do you see your plays as your babies?
“Yes. Beautiful Thing is the most successful child.”
So how do you feel when you see a production of your play that falls short of your expectations?
“Usually I find it quite funny.”
“Usually I’ve been involved along the way so I’ve tried to do a bit of damage limitation on some things. Sometimes I read reviews and I think that doesn’t sound like my production so they’ve obviously got something wrong, or I haven’t explained it very well in the script. If someone is mounting a high profile production of mine, I try to be involved in it but most plays don’t get a second outing so it’s about that first production of your play. You have to be involved in every step of that journey.”
What theatre have you seen that has changed your life?
“The seminal play for me is Angels in America by Tony Kushner, which I saw at the National in 1992. I had no idea what it was going to be. A mate of mine had a ticket and couldn’t go. It came along at a time in my life when I was petrified of HIV and AIDS and if there was anything in the paper about it, I quickly turned the page. I didn’t want to go there. I was too scared. But I went and sat in the front row and went on this amazing journey. It was a brilliant production and it changed my life and made me change my attitude and wake up and made me want to carry on in the theatre. That was the thing that always burned most brightly for me.”
I saw the same production as you when I moved to London in 1994. In those days it was all about Angels in America and Beautiful Thing for me.
They were the two shows that changed my life.
These days I’m about to tour Australia with Truth to Power Café. What does speaking truth to power mean to you?
“I’m really crap at doing the analytical stuff but I would say that anything I write, even the most over the top sitcom or whatever, has always got to be truthful and it’s got to come from a position of truth. Beautiful Thing was based on a truth, and combining that with comedy was the strongest way of showing people what life was like and talking to people in power.”
“When Beautiful Thing was written, the English age of consent laws were 21 for gay men and 16 for heterosexuals. Whenever that was being discussed in Parliament or the House or Lords they always went on about buggery and sodomy, whereas for me, my experience of being gay was falling in love and having a laugh and having to confront the family.”
“I could have written an angsty political rant or I could choose to write a comedy that people didn’t realise was going to be a gay love story. That was how I broke down the walls of prejudice.”
“I tell stories of people talking to each other, but underneath it, even the most ridiculous thing has to come from a position of truth, that I can believe and justify. At the end of the day you’re sitting in a room of actors and having to justify why their character is saying what I’ve written, so everything to me has to come from a position of truth.”
Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing is on at New Theatre Newtown until March 6th 2021.
Jeremy Goldstein’s Truth to Power Café is on at Riverside Theatres Sydney March 11th, 12th and 13th 2021 and will play Brisbane and Melbourne in May.
Jonathan Harvey writes for theatre, film and television including his feature film Beautiful Thing based on his 1993 stage play; BAFTA-nominated Gimme Gimme Gimme; and the musicals Closer to Heaven and Musik with the Pet Shop Boys. Jonathan has also published six novels with Pan Macmillan, and is a patron of Sahir House, an HIV charity in Liverpool.
Jeremy Goldstein is a Manchester born British/Australian theatre maker and HIV+ activist with ACT UP London. For three decades he has championed underrepresented voices and new forms of artistic and political expression. His projects have won multiple theatre awards and in recognition of his political theatre work, Jeremy was named in Time Out as among the 100 most influential people in UK culture.