Alana Valentine’s Savage Grace premiered at Adelaide’s Feast festival, before being produced in Perth at the Blue Room theatre. An ethical and romantic battle of wits, Savage Grace concerns the investigation of a medical ethicist into possible instances of euthanasia performed by an HIV doctor. An emotionally perilous sexual relationship soon develops between the two men. Campion Decent’s Three Winters Green was first produced 10 years ago at the Stables Theatre, a tragicomic exploration of love, sex and HIV/AIDS focused on a group of idealistic young school-leavers. Reworked for this year’s production, Three Winters Green is both a window into an era now passed and a cutting comedy of gay manners, spanning drag queen high drama and lesbian coupledom angst. Tim Benzie spoke with Alana and Campion prior to rehearsals.
TIM BENZIE Alana, why did you choose to write a play about euthanasia?
ALANA VALENTINE It’s a play about two people who passionately disagree, but find themselves in a relationship or at least a sexual encounter. So, it is about euthanasia, but that’s the thing they’re disagreeing about -¦ Euthanasia is life and death; therefore the stakes are high. I also think that euthanasia made me have to try and take seriously the point of view of a person of faith, which I wasn’t certain I’d be able to, so it was a challenge -¦ The stakes were high, and personally I’ve lost, as we all have, friends to HIV and I think it continues to be something which informs this community -¦
TB One review of Savage Grace noted in a polarised world, Valentine’s play is a tonic. Were you intending to write a tonic?
AV I’m a dramatist, so I like people to come out more confused than they go in, in some ways, about an issue. I didn’t write the play to just set out the arguments. I have had the experience of people saying to me, I went in thinking this and I changed my mind through the night. Clearly that’s a compliment, to credibly bringing off both sides. I don’t know, in terms of a tonic -“ I think the world is really divided along faith lines at the moment, and yet it doesn’t seem a lot of our art really interrogates what that is -¦
TB Campion, as a dramatist are you someone who aims to confuse an audience?
AV [Laughs] Excitingly confuse. Stimulate.
CAMPION DECENT Yeah, that’ll do.
AV I’ve been awake longer than him, obviously.
CD I’ll just say -“ I’ll have what she’s having. I don’t know, it’s not the first word I would use to describe my own work necessarily, although I completely understand. I would say problematise, which is a similar thing, I think. I think that is important.
TB Why did you choose to rework Three Winters Green?
CD I was asked to. That’s the honest answer. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been asked to do it. Initially I went, oh my God, why would I do that and how would I do that. Alana and I had a quick chat about this a few weeks ago and it was good advice. It was very scary and I thought I don’t know if I want to go back -¦ It’s funny because 10 years ago you put all the blood, sweat and tears into something and then someone says I think we should cut this and you hang on and you hang on. And you go back 10 years later and because you don’t remember the emotional investment or any of the hard work that went into this particular thing, you look at it and think -“ this is sticking out like dog’s balls. Get rid of it.
TB Were some of your issues of revisiting the play to do with the ways in which HIV/AIDS has changed, in a sense?
CD Not really. It wasn’t so much about that. A lot of it was about technical issues. I hope that I’ve got a few more skills than I had 10 years ago and that I’ve learnt something, but time will tell -¦ When the producers sat down with me and said they wanted to do this play, there were two options. One option was to update it, so it sort of happens today. The other option was to keep the integrity of the world as it existed and to find a framing device to say to the audience, And I know it’s not like that any more. We chose the second option because, to me, the first option of updating it meant that you had an entirely new play. You wouldn’t write the sort of play I wrote 10 years ago today, about HIV now -¦ I just had slight concerns about [updating the play] because I thought, what are we saying here? Are we saying that the experience of a decade ago is no longer valid? Are we pretending it didn’t happen? -¦ I also know someone who died recently, and sure the rate of death is not the same and the whole make-up of the illness is completely different, but there was a period in Sydney and obviously elsewhere of a real kind of siege, plague, crisis mentality -¦
TB I think the reframing is handled very well -“ when one of the angels notes the drop in attendance at the Quilt unfolding, and Francis points out the queue from Africa outside the door. Three million at the door! Forty-two million on the ground! I agree that it would be a completely different play if rewritten in that way.
CD The other thing about it of course is that -¦ there are other things at work in the play -¦ The thing about Three Winters Green of course is that the moment you say HIV/AIDS, people are like ooh and it’s not. There’s some serious moments in it, but even in this draft I suspect it’s actually funnier than it was. There’s quite a few comedic moments in it and at the heart of it it’s really a love story -¦ From my point of view people say, It’s a play about HIV/AIDS, and I go, Yes, it is a play about that, but the emotional terrain and the journey through it and the themes of it are actually about something else, that’s broader than HIV/AIDS -¦ Some people will get that, some people won’t.
TB Alana, with Savage Grace, you further risk pigeonholing by the decision to use two gay men as the central characters.
AV I’m writing about a particular type of person who’s intelligent, sexy, professional, thinks that being seduced by language is as exciting as, you know, physical attraction -¦ This play is not so much about gay men as about that. About putting on stage people who enjoy using language in a really witty, sexy, penetrative kind of way -¦ Highly intelligent gay men who are sexy and on the A-list and all that will like this! But it doesn’t mean that it’s about being gay -¦ I would also like to say about Savage Grace that because it’s a play about two gay men, that I would still really hope that lesbians will come and see it. It’s not the year for this is the play for the boys and this is the play for the girls. It really is a play that lesbians will find absolutely as interesting as gay men -¦
TB Why have both of you decided to have your plays on during Mardi Gras, given that your plays are about, yet are not really about, such issues?
CD I didn’t decide. That’s the thing as a writer, you don’t actually make the decision. Obviously the timing is right. I find it quite interesting that particularly Alana and I are in this festival, this particular festival. Because we’ve both knocked around together and run into each other for a decade or more and we’ve both been involved with Mardi Gras around the same time and everything. Irony’s not the right word, but there’s some kind of weird energy at work.
AV We keep getting thrown together. This play was written in a room that Campion’s had sex in! There’s certainly a synchronicity about us both being involved with this Mardi Gras. I’ve got to say I’m really glad the play’s in Mardi Gras because it will be really different with a strongly gay audience. For me, Mardi Gras, gay theatre, it’s not about what the play’s about, it’s about who else is in the audience. Much as I say this is a play for intelligent, lucid people who go to the theatre -“ that is the gay and lesbian community. They go to a lot of theatre, they like good theatre. That is the audience.