14-05-23 Sandel

I was fully intending to review this for Broadway Baby, but Glenn Chandler refused to allow me in on a Press Ticket, and Broadway Baby respected this ban.  I know that this is not a unique situation – I believe Michael Coveney has been banned by several managements but nonetheless I think this is a deeply flawed situation, which leads logically to producers only allowing in reviewers on condition that they give the show a rave.  I was therefore going to put this up as an audience review on Remote Goat, only Above the Stag, where the show plays, isn’t listed there.  Hence this very rare blog instead:

 

Above the Stag, Arch 17, Miles St, SW8 1RZ.  Box office:  www.AboveTheStag.com

Tues – Sat, 7.30pm, Sun 6pm.  Till 14th June.     Tickets £18.00

A Loving Reclamation

****

“Sandel” was the first positive gay novel I ever read, around 1970.  It made my head spin, because, unlike Michael Campbell’s almost exactly contemporaneous ‘Lord Dismiss Us’, it held out to Us the possibility of happy endings.   A few months later, in Oxford’s gay pub ‘The Gloucester Arms’, someone pointed out to me a rather puffy guy of about 35 in a tweed jacket sitting alone by the corner of the bar.  He had floppy hair and deep dark rings round the eyes.  “That’s Angus Stewart, he wrote ‘Sandel’,” nudged my companion.  Being a bit brash, I wanted to go and talk to him, but when it came to the moment, he turned on me one of those shrinking, ‘Don’t talk to me’, frightened rabbit looks.  His eyes had a look of perpetual disappointment.  I never got beyond ‘Thank You’ before I fled.

‘Sandel’ is deeply autobiographical.  Stewart was a quintessential product of Oxford; the child of an English don who taught at Christ Church and published urbane, rather fantastical detective fiction under the name of Michael Innes.  Stewart himself went to public school, Bryanston, a liberal establishment referenced in ‘Sandel’, followed by three years at Dad’s college.  Before fictionalising his experience, he wrote a memoir of his relationship with a much younger boy in an anthology called ‘Underdogs’, published when he was in his early 20s.

He is represented by the character of David Rogers, a 19-year-old undergraduate, who falls for Tony Sandel, a precocious choirboy of 13 (14 in the play – I think a significant alteration).  The novel and the play chart the growing attraction between the two, the development of a real passionate and emotional attachment which Rogers is slow to acknowledge despite the well-intentioned warnings of his best friend Bruce, himself a repressed homosexual with an unspoken love for his friend.  A car crash separates the lovers, who are only reunited through the agency of a Guardian Angel Aunt who gets Rogers a teaching job at the school Sandel is attending.  Eventually they escape the prying eyes and censure, again courtesy of Auntie, to go on a long honeymoon in Italy.

A kind of cross between ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Lolita’, ‘Sandel’ remains extraordinarily powerful.  It resonates, unlike ‘Lord Dismiss Us’, because the extremely skilful way it blends fantasy and reality.  On one level it is preposterous.  Tony is preposterously talented, preposterously beautiful.  It is fantastic that the indulgent aunt smiles so benignly on this relationship; fantastic that she can conjure a teaching job for a 19-year-old who has dropped out of University.  Lines like “Next year I’m going to train to be a concert pianist” cry out to be mocked.  The unreality is heightened by the haze of the Oxford summer, with cream teas in country towns and dawdling punts up the Cherwell.

However, you don’t mock them, thanks both to the skill of the original and Glenn Chandler’s loving adaptation and direction.  Hand in hand with the romantic nimbus, and at the heart of the play is a character study of emerging adolescent sexuality which is accurate, affectionate, witty and challenging.  One moment a child, all unselfconscious greed, the next profoundly serious and questing, the next highly flirtatious and sexual, the portrait of Sandel is both remarkably complex and a complete denial of the ‘child as victim’ stereotypes which current obsessions depend on.  It’s depiction of the way adolescent boys come on to adult men is spot on – it’s one of the reasons I gave up teaching, because I couldn’t cope with 14-year-olds trying to seduce me.

Given those current obsessions, it is an act of remarkable bravery to reclaim this novel; and in order to do so, it is necessary for both author and audience to think themselves back into a different mind-set.  ‘Sandel’ is set in 1966, a year before gay sex was partly decriminalised; even after decriminalisation, both parties would have been ‘illegal’ in this relationship.  One of the effects of being totally illegal and therefore having no Age of Consent is that all relationships seem equal.  There is no great divide.  Court cases of the 1950s and 60s are full of 13-, 14- and 15 year-olds cheerfully having sex with men in their 40s and 50s. 

And yet, this is a play about love, not sex.  In the early 1970s there was a strong move among gay activists to try and get the word ‘homophile’ into the vocabulary instead of ‘homosexual’, as a way of insisting that gay rights were as much about the right to love as to have sex.  Similarly ‘paedophile’ was the term of choice for boy-loving men, as opposed to ‘pederast’, because it emphasised the affection.  This precision has been lost in a hysteria which labels sex with anyone under the age of consent as ‘paedophilic’.  In ‘Sandel’ the sex is one kiss centre stage, and another, at the end, viewed behind frosted glass.

Glenn Chandler’s adaptation works a treat, making the audience tread a tightrope between involvement in the relationship and conventional knee-jerk reactions.  He doesn’t quite manage to banish dirty sniggers from the audience, but he does ride those reactions.   He is also careful to keep the ambiguities – the relationship between Rogers on one level is, as they maintain, older brother/younger brother, with the older man annealing a profound loneliness in the orphaned younger boy.  It is also, because of Tony’s intelligence and fearlessness, sometimes a relationship of equals.  And at the same time it is a paedophile relationship and an assertion of the right to a childhood sexuality:

“Tony:  What’s the specific term for a boy who loves a man? 

David: I don’t know that there is one.   Perhaps people don’t take you seriously enough to invent a special word.”

Again, at the end, are the lovers going off into a sunset of perpetual bliss?  Or is the Aunt wisely giving them a chance to get the whole thing out of their system, because the relationship will cease to have its attractions as each gets older. 

Chandler’s adaptation improves on the original in one respect.  He cuts down on the long dialogues between David and his best friend Bruce about the folly/immorality of what David is doing.  Bruce is the kind of high camp religious queen who is, or at least used to be, all too common in Oxford, where the cruisiest place was the Sunday service at St Mary Magdalene.  Oscar Wilde has a lot to answer for, when every other student imagines himself to be taking part in a Wilde play.  The problem is that the quasi-religious questions David and Bruce are worrying at are not the ones which we would ask today, which revolve around the nature of power in relationships, and of consent.

Chandler is served brilliantly by Ashley Cousins as the enchanting Tony Sandel.  An impeccable piece of casting augmented by a loving attention to the detail of the script, this is a mercurial, glittering performance which is in all respects enchanting.  He is complemented by Joseph Lindoe as the undergraduate Rogers, a solid foil who provides the necessary contrast with self-effacement, while maintaining interest in his obsession and his dilemma.  Only Calum Fleming as the friend, Bruce, lacks the kind of self-conscious stately projection to bring off his carefully honed witticism.  The action plays on an inventive set by David Shields, heavy gothic skewed and distorted to reflect the values of the society it depicts.

This however is a minor blemish.  It says much for the skill and passionate conviction of all involved, but especially of Chandler, that when our Heroes run away at end, the audience is inwardly cheering their action. Jeremy Forrest got five and a half years in prison for much the same thing.

Peter Scott-Presland

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