Gates of Gold

Frank McGuinness
Trafalgar Studios
(2006)

Production photo: William Gaunt

For a moment when the play opens, we are led to believe we are in a backstage dressing room and that Gabriel (played by William Gaunt) is an ageing actor who is preparing to go on stage. But this is the first of many illusions. Vicki Fifield's ornate set is reminiscent of belle-époque former splendour; but instead of a theatre, it is the bedroom of a dying man and Gabriel is vainly trying to keep up appearances by applying make-up and darkening his hair. Meanwhile, his lover Conrad (Paul Freeman) is in the next room hiring outspoken but haunted nurse, Alma, (Michelle Fairley) to look after him.

This theme of self-deception and repressed demons runs throughout the play, humorously in parts, such as when Gabriel describes several exotic upbringings which couldn't possibly all be true, and poignantly in other parts when he asserts he is not dying to his sister, only to recant almost immediately.

Frank McGuinness's play was inspired by the lives of two theatrical giants Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards who, though not born in Ireland, spent most of their working lives there, setting up the Gate Theatre in 1928. The pair not only had a close working partnership (Edwards was a director while MacLiammoir a writer and actor), they were lovers too in an era where homosexuality was still illegal. It is the relationship between the two men that forms the basis of the play. It is summed up as "Two men met, they had a marriage, it lasted". Of course, in reality it was not so simple.

Gabriel is a sharp-tongued wit with the acid barbs of an ageing queen. Dying he may be, but he has lost none of his acerbic temperament. He accuses Alma of having a dress sense that is almost entirely Canadian and castigates his hypochondriac sister Kassie (Josie Kidd) for complaining of every ailment apart from the Habsburg hairlip, which she would surely one day succumb to too. His best jibes however are saved for Conrad, the person he loves most, but whose infidelity with Gabriel's nephew Ryan (Ben Lambert) he can't forgive. Conrad, too, knows how to wound and Gabriel's greatest regret was that the highest praise Conrad would give him was that his acting was "adequate". This is perhaps the strongest insight in the play - that lovers know exactly what buttons to press to hurt each other.

William Gaunt gives a storming performance as Gabriel, switching easily from the intelligent, commanding, difficult genius to the tired, vulnerable, scared dying man. Gavin McAlinden uses the intimacy of the Trafalgar studios to its best effect so that Gabriel's breakdown was almost as emotionally draining for the audience as it was for the star. Paul Freeman as the dapper but refined Conrad is more restrained but it all adds to the sadness when he finally gets onto Gabriel's bed and holds his dying lover.

The relationship between the lovers was well-explored but I found the stories involving Alma's dead twin and Conrad's infidelity with Ryan less interesting and didn't reach a satisfying conclusion.

It is a fitting tribute that Gates of Gold premiered at the Gate Theatre where Edwards and MacLiammoir had spent so much of their lives. This Trafalgar studios production carries on its tradition of offering an insight into unusual lives.

Running until 16th December

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart