'Poignant, painful and painfully funny' - Joe Nawaz warms to an engaging portrayal of modern gay men

It is entirely appropriate that TheatreofplucK are the company to give the raw and funny Bison its debut European showing. With a bold and unapologetic queer agenda, ‘Pluck’ have time and again forced audiences to sit up and take notice without ever compromising that vision. They are, therefore, more than up to the challenge of presenting this visceral peek at various aspects of the gay male experience without descending into cliché.

It's also fitting that this uncompromising and revelatory play forms the dramatic backbone of Outburst 2009, which in a few short years and with next to no budget seems to have clawed its way into the public consciousness in a way that no amount of Ulster Bank patronage can buy.

From the pen of Lachlan Philpott and much changed from its original production in Sydney nearly ten years ago, Bison is variously poignant, painful and painfully funny.

BisonPhilpott himself spent two weeks in Belfast recently alongside original director Alyson Campbell and the cast, work-shopping Bison to give it a contemporary, colloquial sheen – and it is mostly successful.

In massive over-simplification, Bison might be described as the 'four ages of (gay) man' with each member playing a gay male ‘type’. There’s the precocious teenager finding his social feet, the naive gay adventurer travelling the world with his trusty gay guidebook in one hand and a fistful of lube in the other. Snaking up the age ladder, there’s a single 30-something, superficially at ease with his life and himself but who hides an existential hole at his core which leads to a rather grotesque and unflinching look at some of the more hardcore aspects of male sexuality.

Then right at the end, at the impossibly stagnant age of 48, is Richard. He’s in a long-term loving relationship. Again he’s seemingly happy and domestically blissful, but secretly laments his youth: the drugs, the dancing, the promiscuity. He shabbily relives former highs through gay internet chat rooms where he can be anybody he wants to be or ‘walking the dog’ through the park at night.

What binds the play’s characters is an acute sense of melancholy that is hard to shake. The very young Jason has an idealistic notion of love whilst being dragged into the hedonistic world of the club lifestyle, revelling in his youth and simultaneously yearning for meaningful intimacy.

The older Richard has that intimacy but misses the thrill of the meaningless fumble and the anonymous sex that somehow thwarted a sense of personal entropy. Each of them pines for an Arcadian ideal of happiness that doesn’t exist - for gay or straight. As obvious as it may sound, it’s refreshing to see gay characters on a stage just being flawed people and not exaggerated (if sympathetic) grotesques as a lot of ‘gay-friendly’ theatre is prone to churn out.

It’s soon clear here that these characters are ciphers for differing aspects of behaviour and lifestyle in the gay community (if there really is such a thing as a cohesive community) and we aren’t asked, as is normal in the dramatic portrayal of gay life, to patronisingly sympathise with them or adore them simply because they’re gay.

This is the great strength in Philpott’s writing - there’s no room for judgement here, or answers to age-old questions and prejudices. What there is instead is an honest attempt to portray the lives of real people and how they’re impacted by the decisions that they make and equally how those decisions are determined by societal pressures. In this case it’s a combination of prejudice, queer peer pressure and an enduring quest to be loved which determines and shapes the characters' lives.

Aids, which was still painfully fresh in the minds of much of the gay community when Bison premiered is presented in this remixed version as something that’s fast receding into forgotten history - its victims and survivors an increasingly distant generation.

There’s a poignant scene when party-head Jason has a brief encounter with an older guy in a club who refers to the loss of friends in the 80s. The youngster samples the word ‘Aids’ like he’s trying to recollect some fact from his History GCSE exam.

This scene is also pivotal in highlighting some of the punishing and unforgiving strictures that seem to be prevalent in the gay scene. The older guy explains to Jason that he’s breaking the rules by even talking to him – being old and ‘un-fuckable’ is taboo in these gaudy nocturnal playgrounds.

Throughout, the set is a half-lit locker room – with the cast receding into the shadows as each character takes centre stage. The dialogue is fast, scattered and at times fragmentary – with, snatches of conversation layered over each other to disquieting effect.

Some of the funniest and most telling scenes are the cast’s conversations as characters in a gay internet chat room, where the talk is rapid, direct and soullessly, mechanically libidinal. Everybody has a ludicrously exaggerated soubriquet to reflect their sexual prowess – I blush to repeat any of them here.

The performances are all excellent with special mention going to the chronological book-enders Miche Doherty and Matthew Cavan, who as Richard and Jason form the warm beating heart of a play which can at times make for challenging viewing.

Although the direction occasionally lapses into ‘Legz Akimbo’ style parody, especially when the characters are engaged in acts of sexual abandon, the humour is mostly intentional and when it’s funny, it’s very funny indeed.

Bison is a play which fearlessly presents something of what it is to be a contemporary gay man, warts and all, and dares us to flinch. That we don’t is testimony perhaps to more enlightened times but also to the uncompromising yet open-hearted work that both Lachlan Philpott and TheatreofplucK have presented.

Outburst runs until November 21 at various venues around Belfast. For more details about the festival click here.