How We Love, VAULT Festival

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by Dora Bodrogi

“But it’s getting better, right?”

This is the question I get the most often when I mention institutionalised homophobia in a country I’ve left, Hungary. And it’s not so bad there in this regard, they ‘only’ have a ban on marriage equality, same-sex joint adoption, and Gender Studies. After all, a Pride march isn’t the same without skinheads booing from the cordons, and pulling out of Eurovision because it doesn’t agree with traditional national values (read: because it’s too gay). It could be worse.

In fact, it could be a lot worse. Homosexuality is still criminalised in 73 countries. Nigeria is one of them: in the south, the imperial British colonisation era laws on sodomy and the ever-vaguely phrased crime of gross indecency (yes, the one that got Oscar Wilde) are still in place and you can get up to 14 years in prison. In the north? Under Sharia law, the punishment is death by stoning.

The mentality that distances “us” in the supposedly enlightened developed world from “them” in regions hardly ever covered on the news has to be checked at the door when it comes to How We Love. Viewers, among them Londoners at the Vaults who may regard Pride more as a party than a political demonstration, are invited into Babs (Enoch Lwanga) and Regi’s (Ewa Dina) living room in the paradise of Lewisham, where they plan their shotgun marriage. Isn’t it the ultimate power move, a gay man and a lesbian woman playing the system against itself by using marriage to protect themselves from that very institution that works against them? They’ll live that married life, get a
patio, and one day maybe the only time they’ll hear the word “poof” will be in relation to expensive furniture. Surely, all will be well.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Babs and Regi may have found a way out but you never really disconnect from home, whether you like it or not. Their loved ones are still in Nigeria and news of their village on fire and conflicts isn’t just something to scroll through on your Twitter feed or something on the evening news before an announcement of new baby pandas in the local zoo. It matters. They may have removed themselves from immediate danger for now, but this reality is not removed from them. They worry for their partners, their family, and friends. With such widespread manhunts, raids, publicised names, and such a harsh punishment looming over your head, you learn not to trust anyone. You learn not to even utter your friends’ names.

Sounds familiar? Enter Rupert (Dr. Paul T. Davies), Babs and Regi’s elderly neighbour and gay, Jewish Holocaust survivor. They can compete over numbers – six million Jewish victims, 14 million black African victims of the slave trades – but it’s not in the numbers. They are too big to comprehend anyway. You need only one story, Regi says, as we are watching exactly that, one story about these two bickering but loving friends trying to keep up hope and faith in each other against the odds. After all, they have already won at the marriage game: they love each other, which is more than many genuinely married straight couples can say. Rupert’s story of teenage gay love in Nazi Germany, lessons learned from the past, and an off-the-book game of Mr and Mrs may help Babs and Regi to cope with their present reality and move on.

Dina’s and Lwanga’s acting is energetic, nuanced, and their commitment to the story is obvious. It’s a joy to watch them, from dancing in the living room at night to the heartbreak of loss. Davies’ rendition of Rupert’s backstory is one we listen to with baited breath. They could have taken the play’s heavy themes into a totally different direction that depicts hardship on a larger scale but they didn’t: we stay with these three sweet rejects full of love, life, and hope.

The key lesson to take away from this play is this: these horrific events, the threat, the losses, the persecution, blackmail, hiding, running away – the idea that all these could only happen in the past or only in some exotic faraway region of the world is futile. And in case you were wondering, yes, victims of persecution 80 years ago, or 200, or more, were very much as aware of their misfortune in real time, along with the pain and the injustice of it all, as you would be today. Acutely aware. As Babs points out to Rupert, too, “Nigeria isn’t that strange, it’s the richest country in Africa, it’s part of the Commonwealth.” One of the successes of How We Love is that it treats this fact as self-evident and focuses on the story beyond it. Just two friends trying to do what still seems to be the biggest transgression for LGBTQ+ people the world over: just live.

How We Love is a must-see play in an age of pulling up walls and blasé foreign offices deporting victims of LGBTQ persecution home and often into immediate danger. Then, perhaps, with the rest of the world taking a little bit more notice, things may start getting better.

How We Love runs through 23 February.

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