Two Pamela Lee-ish drag queens halt outside the dimly lit doorway of New York Theatre Workshop. “Shopping and Fucking!” they squeal in unison, reading a poster for Mark Ravenhill’s new play. “Girlfriend,” sighs the taller one, “this is the story of my life.”
Well, not exactly. Unless she was once a 14-year-old “rent boy” begging to be sodomized with a knife. Ravenhill’s shocking drama presents the most graphic and disturbing gay sex scenes ever seen onstage. Still, in London, it has played in two of the West End’s best-respected – and, for this particular work, incongruously beautiful – playhouses (first the Gielgud Theatre on touristy Shaftsbury Avenue and now at the Queens Theatre right next door).
It’s been translated into ten foreign languages, and after a lengthy, heated debate, the British government agreed to subsidize an international touring company that has mounted productions of the play in Australia, Sweden, and Israel.
It opens here at NYTW – the playhouse best known as the birthplace of Rent – on February 2.
“So very weird,” whines the balding, six-feet-plus Ravenhill. “Why is German theater so weird?” It’s nearly midnight on a typically wet and dreary Sunday, and Ravenhill is unpacking his bags in his revealingly tidy flat in North London’s Camden Town. He’s just returned from a weekend in Berlin, where he attended the splashy German premiere of Shopping and Fucking at the Deutsches Theater, where Brecht staged some of his early works. The trip was Ravenhill’s first chance to witness his debut play’s surprising international success.
“We, the English,” he says grandly, “and the Americans, of course, are interested in character and psychology, but, well, those Germans. The Germans are interested in: ‘Expressionism! Theatricality!’ What they did was completely weird, like if your Wooster Group did my play. They added songs! These sort of Portishead-type of songs, and all this other stuff.” Exasperated, he quickly returns to his luggage.
He’ll have to start packing again soon, though, as he heads out across the Atlantic to attend his New York opening (which will be staged without musical intervention or Teutonic overkill). The six-week run of Shopping and Fucking was nearly sold out before previews began, likely owing to a buzz that characterized it as the next Rent. While both shows profile impoverished twentysomethings, that’s where the similarity ends. “I hate people calling it the ‘next Rent,’” says Randy Lichtenwalner, the NYTW’s farm-boyish director of audience development. “For one thing,” he continues, revealing his personal preference, “this is more realistic, which is why some people walk out. If Mark Ravenhill wrote Rent, Mimi would die in the end.”
Several of the characters in Shopping and Fucking are gay men. But unlike their Rent counterparts – those much-praised positive representations of homosexuality who sing p.c. pop songs and for whom hugging is fulfilling sexual contact – Ravenhill’s men do, as the title strongly suggests, have sex. The actors are discreetly covered, but there’s nothing discreet about the encounters, which are violent, nasty, and meaningless. For these characters, sex is less akin to love than to shopping – just another transaction.
“I want to capture where we’re at now,” says the 31-year-old playwright, who’s trying to expose the “dirty, desperate” things unemployed British youth do to survive: phone sex, prostitution, selling Ecstacy. His mission is to create accurate gay characters, not prettied-up paradigms. “I introduced gay shame into theater,” he brags.
“Hey, listen,” Ravenhill explains, “gay people have had enough positive images. What those nellies need is some negative images to shake them up.” He suspects that New York gay audiences will not embrace the play. He calls himself a “post-gay” man. “I’ve been laughed at for saying this before, but if you can have post-feminism, why can’t you have post-gay?”
His straight characters don’t fare a lot better. One’s a hopelessly deluded actress in love with her gay roommate and the other’s a homicidal mobster. Both are involved in a power play worthy of David Mamet, a man who sends Ravenhill into a rapturous frenzy: “He’s my hero. He writes so honestly about masculinity – real men, the kind who wear lumberjack shirts and go into the woods with David to shoot fish. Oooh,” he coos, “I want to have his love child. He has such gorgeous hair.”
Ravenhill’s own childhood in a suburb south of London was more idyllic than his play might suggest. He grew up in lower-middle-class Haywards Heath, among the kind of people “Mike Leigh writes about.” His father is a draftsman and his mother is a secretary. Ravenhill graduated from Bristol University in 1987, with a degree in theater and English, and was immediately hired by the Soho Theater Company. After freelancing as a director for three years, he was offered the job of literary director for Paines Plough, one of England’s most respected independent theater companies.
While the extreme fascinates Ravenhill as a writer, his personal life is considerably more mundane. “He’s the least-fucked-up writer I’ve ever met,” says David Johnson, the producer who brought Shopping and Fucking to the West End as well as the stage version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (during Trainspotting kids were shooting heroin in the bathroom stalls): “I worked with Irvine after his first novel and Mark with his first play. Irvine is a complete maniac fuck,” he says affectionately. “Mark is not like that at all. He hardly drinks, doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t club.”
Ravenhill didn’t travel much either, but Shopping and Fucking has certainly changed that. Though he claims to be “fairly indifferent to success in New York,” he’s eager to visit the home of his idol, Woody Allen. “I love Woody,” he exclaims. “I want to be Diane Keaton, but with better teeth. Poor Woody, he finally finds a nice girl and Mia dumps all over him.” He’s also pleased his play is happening on the same block as one of the city’s remaining hard-core gay sex clubs. “It’ll be interesting to see how many people go from one to the other,” he says with a laugh. “Hopefully, they’ll take in both.”