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Everyone loves a play that, like Hamlet, is made up of quotations. In his hilarious and affecting Gates of Gold, Frank McGuinness has given us new quotes galore. When I caught its world premiere in Dublin in July 2002, I thought it a Dublin classic. Its two leading characters are re-imagined from the legendary English thesps Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, who founded and for decades ran Dublin’s Gate Theatre. But in this excellent London production, the play flies free of its Dublin origins. Something in its stylish absurdity makes its characters sound surprisingly like characters in Tennessee Williams. And it’s surely the most quotable play in front of the London public today.
Gabriel and Conrad, as its two thesps are called, are Wildean dandies. They have lived for theatre, art, beauty and style, have publicly cohabited as lovers and, along the way, have tormented each other with sarcasm, jealousy and malice. Gabriel is dying, but still he wears a frightful black wig and full make-up. Gabriel: “Has there ever been a man I hate more than you?” Conrad: “Your wigmaker?”
Behind all this lie large reserves of esteem, love and largeness of spirit. The two men have never forgotten that Conrad hires a tough-spirited local nurse, Alma, who tends Gabriel; she is fiercely loyal, not least against his sister Kassie and nephew, who choose to believe he cannot be dying. Gabriel’s devotion to style is such that he deliberately blurs fact and fiction: “Let us fight to the last for what we do and do not believe in, since there is no difference.” Gabriel re-lives with Conrad their original dream of founding a theatre. And death will be another theatre opening: “Open the gates of gold!”
William Gaunt’s dark bass voice brings a superb authority to Gabriel: he brands every line with dandyish line with debonair panache. Paul Freeman’s elegance is ideal for Conrad: his constant restraint becomes immensely touching. Gavin McAlinden directs; the production’s only flaw is an incorrect pronunciation of “Fiesole”.
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