Few dramatists can portray every beat of the human heart like Terrence McNally, especially the gay male heart, which is his principal area of exploration. He can show core-deep feelings direct and unadorned, without seeming trite or slushy or appearing to overplay his hand. As I say, such a strain of sentiment is honest and admirable. It's the surroundings he chooses for it that can sometimes hobble his plays. The Lisbon Traviata is a case in point. It dates from 1985, some twenty years after McNally's first play, but still only on the cusp of his fully mature and successful work.
The bulk of the second act is prime stuff, as protagonist Stephen alternates between poisonously trying to thwart his partner Mike's new affair and pleading openly for Mike not to leave him. Stephen, an opera buff, feels that he lacks the words to tell Mike all his heart, so he keeps putting on records of arias, but Mike does not share his passion... not, any more, in any sense. This is beautiful and heart-rending.
Alas, it is preceded by over an hour of operaphile trainspotting between Stephen and his friend Mendy, as they volley the minutiae of various Maria Callas performances at each other. (The play takes its title from a near-definitive but extremely rare semi-pirate recording from 1958.) We get the points: that opera, and Callas in particular, are a vicarious outlet for each of them in differing ways, and that such an obsession is little different from the more usual gay cliché of fixation on Streisand, Midler, Garland or whomever, or indeed from the stereotypical teenage boy's completism about his favourite rock band. But it is tedious, even with the finely judged repression of Marcus D'Amico as Stephen and the camp relish of David Bamber's Mendy.
And towards the end of the second act, just when you think he's redeemed the play, McNally makes the correspondence explicit, as Stephen and Mike's exchange gets wound up to the pitch of grand opera, and suddenly you just know that even moderately unhappy ever after is not an option for the ending. Director Stephen Henry has an honourable record with McNally's work, but this belated British première at the King's Head feels more due to the author's name than the play's power.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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