Section 28: a new play remembers
By BEL JACOBS
In May 1988, a controversial law forbidding the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ came into force, launching a wave of protest. Lesbians abseiled into the House of Lords and stormed the BBC. Thousands of Mancunians took to the city streets to march; Ian McKellen came out as gay in support. The unrest continued until it was repealed, first in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the UK in 2003. Extinction Rebellion, currently embarked on a regime of civil disobedience to prevent further climate change, must dream of achieving something similar.
2018 marks thirty years since the introduction of Clause 28 and, to flag the anniversary, a new play debuts at North London’s Kings Head Theatre, showing the enormous personal toll - and sense of threat - the law exacted on individuals. Dandelion is set in Margate in 1988, just after the introduction of Clause 28, and charts how two characters learn to navigate a society that enforces silence, oppression and the denial of their most vital identities. While 16-year-old Claire discovers and explores her new sexuality, her teacher Ann is determined to lead a ‘normal’ life with her long term girlfriend.
Written by playwright Jennifer Cerys and directed and produced by Adriana Sanford, Dandelion is staged by Paperclip Theatre, an all-female theatre collective working to put the narrative of lesbian and bisexual women front and centre. I speak to writer Jennifer about the play’s intentions and its wider cultural context - and just how important political theatre is in these challenged times.
Why did you decide to write this play?
With it being 30 years on from Clause 28, and with me and Adriana being both queer women, we both wanted to put queer history on stage and explore lesbian narratives (which are unfortunately hard to find in theatre).
Plays like Jungle opened audiences' eyes to the realities of the refugee crisis. Can you comment on the power of political theatre to bring issues alive?
One of the best things about theatre is the connection it fosters between the audience and the actors. In a world of iPhones and Netflix, it’s hard to completely focus on something, but theatre creates this rare environment where that’s possible, and that creates this intensity in the room that means political theatre can bring issues alive in an incredible way. After a play ends, seeing an audience member turn to their friend, or partner, or even a stranger who was sat next to them and talk about what they’d seen is always a brilliant feeling. And political theatre encourages these conversations, because this type of theatre doesn’t just exist in the four walls of the auditorium, it leads to conversation and actions long after the play has finished.
How crucial is the role of political theatre in these environmentally and politically challenging times?
With issues like Brexit right on our doorstep, it’s harder and harder to be politically apathetic anymore (which is one of the few good things about the current political climate!). That’s the same for theatre. Arts and politics have long gone hand-in-hand and, though it’s great to have shows that allow us to escape, it’s also important for theatre to confront the difficult times we find ourselves in.
Why is it important to remember Clause 28 now?
This year marks 30 years since Clause 28 was introduced, and a lot of people don’t realise that it’s still very recent history, only being repealed in 2003. Before I starting writing this piece, I only had a very vague idea about what Clause 28 was. But as me and the director, Adriana Sanford, put this piece together I learnt more and even got to speak to some of the brilliant activists who campaigned against the Clause at the time. And it hit me how little I knew about queer history generally, and about all the work my community has done. It’s important not just to remember Clause 28 on its anniversary but to teach queer history in schools – I know learning that my community played a vital role in history would have helped support me in coming out and understanding my identity.