The issue of eugenics can entirely reverse the expected stances of campaigners: right-to-choose liberals can begin arguing fervently against abortion on the sole ground that a child might possess a particular characteristic, whilst fundamentalist moralists may put on hold the notion that termination is murder if it means the eradication of a "moral disease" – such as homosexuality.
Jonathan Tolins's The Twilight Of The Golds, receiving its British première four years after it was first seen in the U.S., is based on such a situation. Although written some time before the brouhaha about the identification of a so-called (and, at best, wildly overemphasised) male "gay gene", it posits a process whereby such a gene can be identified at an early stage of pregnancy, thus offering the option not to bring such a child into the world. This is the dilemma faced by Suzanne Gold-Stein, and one passionately argued upon by her gay brother David Gold.
In fact, not once in the two-hour play is Suzanne's child-to-be described as "gay"; it would, we are told, be "like David". If this meant the lad would grow up like his uncle to become an opera designer, one might just be tempted to terminate, but there is no doubt what the phrase really means. David's crusade as he "fights for his life" also mobilises his mother and father, who take refuge in the family variant of the Fifth Amendment – "You're our son and we love you" – until badgered by him into giving a straight answer (no pun intended). Yet Suzanne's real middle-class New York-Jewish reservation, that her son would face hostility and victimisation, is never explicitly stated; instead, the supposed brother-sister bond allows David to intuit her fears, and try to refute them by telling her tales from the Ring cycle.
As the title suggests, this play is heavy on Wagner: David buys Suzanne the entire cycle on CD and habitually uses its plot to supply parables for life crises, Tim Shortall's overblown set design mixes Ikea-furnished apartment with Teutonic apocalypse... the audience is even recalled to its seats after the interval, not by the usual theatre bells, but by the "Ride of the Valkyries". Tolins writes with intelligence and sensitivity, but with an unshakable moral identification with David's standpoint and an avoidance of its inconsistencies.
Polly James's direction fails to imbue the often protracted family exchanges with any kind of spark; the drama proper begins only at the midway point of the evening, preceded by a deal of expository interplay. Jason Gould as David gesticulates compulsively with his head, Gina Bellman never really gets to grips with Suzanne, and Peter Laird as father Walter equates character so closely with decibels that at times he puts himself off; Suzanne's husband Rob is sidelined just as Mark Hadfield gets into his stride.
On paper, Tolins's play has all the makings of a first-rate drama; in practice, though, it remains frustratingly staid and evasive.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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