San Domino, Tristan Bates Theatre

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by guest critic Gregory Forrest

I really wanted to love this.

A new musical about gay men under Mussolini (politically, if not physically) sounds so exciting. Silvio Berlusconi’s claim that ‘Mussolini never killed people, just sent them to holiday camps’ brushes off the dark reality of imprisonment, violence, and unrecorded deaths. Yet by clearing out the closet, government officials gave gay men in particular the freedom to live openly and form tentative relationships in their Mediterranean exile. It was a queerly liberating sea breeze.

What’s most irritating is that so little is known of these men: fascist bookkeepers aren’t
exactly known for their rigour. As such, this musical isn’t a documentary as much as a
piecing together of historical fragments which could have been shaped in so many different ways. The stories that have been prioritised in San Domino are bizarre.

WHY would you craft a heterosexual love story as the emotional centre point of a new
musical about a gay prison camp? W-H-Y? Why is there an Etonian Englishman talking
about his school days old chap, in the underground bars of Sicily? These choices act like
magnets, sucking the focus away from specific, queer narratives that this musical thinks it is about: the gay man living in Catania, Italy.

By trying to include a wide variety of characters touched by this story, the writers have
forgotten to tell the story itself. The gay relationships on stage – both friendships and
romances – are bizarrely brief and superficial: introduced all too late and resolved too
early. And predictably, the lovers’ duet is reserved for a straight couple.

With the help of Alan Whittaker’s rousing score, several melodramatic moments do pay off. Letters From Home, the strongest song of the night, conveys longing and desire through a touching spiderweb of communication. Meanwhile, Roger Parkins’s solo as a closeted christian finds moments of truly fucked-up clarity which are magical to watch. And in one compelling queer love-triangle, performers Grant Neal, Christopher Laishly, and Joe Etherington tackle the contradictions of masculine desire among gay men: acting upon gay desires being emasculating by a heteronormative logic. Here, for a flash, is a complex quality of gay experience being tackled by gay characters. It’s knotty and horrible and reads like Jean Genet at his finest. Yet three songs later, this drama is resolved and we’re back to surface level soap drama.

This is a gay musical that does little to serve its gay characters. I have no doubt that the
stories of these men need to be told; but San Domino doesn’t tell them.

San Domino runs through 30 June.

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