Manchester Library Theatre - 21st May 2008 - 7.30pm

'Rock' is about the creation of an icon. In the 1950s, Rock Hudson was top box office and had worked with legendary directors Douglas Sirk and George Stevens. But he lived a lie right up until his death from AIDS in 1985. It must be difficult to comprehend, in a way, how frustrated and frightened gay actors were in such conservative times. If the tabloids got hold of your story you were, essentially, finished. It's ironic that even in our media saturated culture today there are big box office names living their gay lives behind a veil of security for fear of losing their careers. Hollywood homophobia still exists and big box office names still lead double lives despite a liberal Western culture where same-sex marriage is now legal, even as recently in good ol' California.

In Tim Fountain's play we are shown how, at the hands of agent Henry Willson, plain old, sqeaky voiced, slightly effeminate Roy Fitzgerald, is transformed into that bastion of male heterosexuality, Rock Hudson. It's an interesting process, with Fountain suggesting an inheritance of enacted masculinity either from a troubled and abusive relationship with his stepfather or the Depression era abandonment by his natural father. And I thought it was over sensitive mothers that turned fragile little boys into great big pooftahs. Fountain's script is superb, full of witty one-liners and knowing asides to Rock's eventual place in gay cultural history. When Henry first takes Rock out into Hollywood nightlife the reaction is electric. The phone is ringing off the hook and as Willson paraphrases "that's the sound of middle aged homosexuals busting their balls, and middle aged women will be right behind them" on the effect the big hunk, with the bassoon-like voice, has, and will eventually, have on an audience.

The play charts the way Willson then busts his own balls making Hudson into a Hollywood mega-star whilst also frantically covering up all traces of Hudson's homosexuality by making him date Vera Ellen and various other actresses. This eventually leads to a disastrous marriage to Willson's secretary, Phyllis Gates. This strain on Hudson's personal life takes its toll and in the second half of the play we see Willson spiral into drunken oblivion as his own personal life interferes with his business as an agent and Rock walks out on him.

The play is a two hander between Bette ('National Treasure') Bourne, as Willson, and Michael Xavier as Hudson. The drama is confined to Willson's office, from Roy Fitzgerald's original meeting through to Willson's self destruction in the 1970s. Whilst the script is tight and economic, the performances, although good, perhaps were rather uneven. Bourne, a consumate player, seemed to struggle with his lines and I did wonder where Willson's own ill health began and Bourne's finished? If he wasn't poorly then Bette was giving a supreme demonstration of how to act it! That aside, Bourne and Xavier were very credible. One highlight is the bizarre sight of Bourne spraying Xavier with gold paint to turn him into an Oscar - a stunt that Willson made Hudson undertake for an Oscar party. Bourne was affecting in his portrayal of the irascible agent, especially as the character spiralled into drunken bitterness. Xavier pretty much pulled off an impossible task - how to even begin to portray such a recognisable figure as Hudson - and subtly showed the transformation from nervous, geeky boy into confident, but frustratingly closeted, Hollywood icon.

The play does throw up a plethora of questions. A comment overheard in the interval, "Bette Bourne? But there aren't any women in it?", seemed to sum up, for me, the 'hot potato' questions of our times - what is gay culture, who is it for and is it relevant any more? In this age of media saturation, a quick Google, by any gay cultural ingenue proposing to see the play, will tell you all you need to know, to an extent, about Bette and Rock. Fine, but if you can't even be bothered to do that then what is the appeal of a play about Rock Hudson to your average shopping, fucking, clubbing 18 year old gay boi. It did amuse me that even the cultural reference to 'McMillan And Wife' might simply go over the heads of members of the audience where for us sad old gits it's the ultimate symbol of Hudson's further capitulation to the closet. Is it just a question, today, of 'Rock Hudson was this really famous actor, who, like, y'know died of AIDS and it was really tragic, yeah?" Or perhaps it says more about me? I've no idea what goes on in the mind of a gay 18 year old male these days. What are his cultural touchstones? Would I understand them? Is there any need for them? Would any 18 year old listen to me droning on about the gay sub-texts of Sirk's 'Magnificent Obsession' (the storyline of which is hilariously lampooned by Henry Willson in the play) or my personal favourite, 'All That Heaven Allows'. Probably not and it's sad to think that this play may suffer because of this limitation wherein Britney Spears latest fuck-up and having an STD as a badge of pride is perhaps all that matters.

Rant over. It's a play with potential and I hope it finds an appreciative audience because, beyond its themes of Hollywood gay repression, it does touch on relevant issues in the 21st Century - what is gay identity and how is it constructed - that will surely find some sympathy with those who have struggled, and are still struggling, to come out of the closet, whatever their age.

'Rock' is just one of the many exciting events in Queer Up North , Europe’s most ambitious queer festival.

And here's Bette talking about his career, courtesy of Homotopia:

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