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Dramaturg, Tom Lyons, Queer Theatre at the National Theatre. Interview: “Culture is fundamentally connected to LGBT+ history as a motivator of change and as a response to political change.”

The National Theatre is marking the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales by staging its first Queer Theatre event series. A group of world class creatives are examining how theatre has charted the LGBT+ experience through a series of rehearsed readings and post-show discussions in the Lyttelton Theatre. But this bold and extremely well put-together programme of work is anything but a drag.

I caught up with the National Theatre’s Dramaturg, Tom Lyons after a rehearsal on a sunny day on the Southbank and asked him why this was such a significant moment to mark. “It felt like it was very important to mark the 50th anniversary of 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Culture is fundamentally connected to LGBT+ history as a motivator of change and as a response to political change.” He continues: “With Angels in America being this totemic show, it felt important to mitigate against historicing homosexuality. Angels is a beautiful piece and exists in a luminal space – but equally it centres around a very specific point in time and it’s not the most positive point of time – but it is an important one. It was an exciting opportunity to contextualise this history by looking what happened before that period, since and what might happen after it by looking back.”

So, what does a dramaturg do? Tom is a member of this rare but flourishing species. “A dramaturg is a curious job title – nobody really knows what it means; it kind of has a European heritage which I guess we have appropriated,” he says. “There’s some aspects of literary management, commissioning and dramaturgy. I would say it’s primarily a combination of seeking new voices and new work, developing new writing and projects.”

The National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, is doing a solid job of balancing classics and experimental writing and is programming work that speaks to the nation. Lyons is based in the new work department at the National. “We used to have a literary department and a studio; the studio was where we developed work and the literary department was the commission centre of the building and with Rufus’s increased focus on putting new work into the stages and treating old work like new work it was important to merge those two departments. The outcome was the creation of the new work department with a focus on how we develop work.”

The Queer Theatre events include, but are not limited to, Wig Out! by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Certain Young Men by Peter Gill, Bent by Martin Sherman and The Drag by Mae West. It is worth mentioning that there is currently an excellent free exhibition: ‘In Visible Ink-Tracing LGBT+ stories at the NT’ running. This exhibition traces a timeline of some of the political, social and cultural events and stories that have impacted the LGBT + community over past 25 years. Later this month eight actors will take to the stage to perform a series of monologues, curated by Mark Gatiss at The Old Vic. In a post Brexit Britain, this kind of work is very important; perhaps regional theatres should take note.

Angels in America

Angels in America. Click on the image to book your tickets for the NT Live broadcast of Part One

How did Tom go about selecting five plays from all the queer plays that are in existence? “It is impossible because LGBT+ people are not culturally homogenous, it’s not a single culture by any means. Politically there is a unification in the cause but absolutely not culturally,” he says. “Well, there is something challenging about choosing five plays that capture a collective experience that is different for each person – which is a fool’s errand,” he pauses. “But the idea is that it will agitate people to suggest other texts that were significant and start a bigger conversation.”

Twenty-five years after its first production, Angels in America, a play about the Aids crisis and an imperishably pertinent commentary on US politics, is enjoying a barnstorming run in the Lyttleton. Controversially, I think this production of Angels in America will work even better when it is screened via NT Live. Lyons doesn’t disagree with me. “I guess it is very cinematic… It is an epic event and a thrilling piece of writing. As a piece of art – is beautiful and one that you can abstract from what it is saying,” he says. “It’s not stunt casting: Andrew Garfield is giving an incredible performance. Seeing it at NT Live will be a really interesting opportunity to experience it on film and Marianne Elliott’s production is a real theatrical treat that advances a lot of ideas.”

The Queer Theatre series runs until 10 July at the National Theatre in association with Pride in London. https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

There are NT Live broadcasts of Angels in America on 20 July (part one) and 27 July (part two) http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/