8 is a difficult play for me to review without editorialising. Being on the subject of same sex marriage and the human rights issues of the LGBTQI community, it’s a thing very dear to my heart.
8 is a play by Oscar winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – and I’ll admit my bias, I wept when he gave his Oscar acceptance speech for his screenplay of Milk! The play concerns the events surrounding a lawsuit filed in the state of California after same sex marriage was banned in that state by the controversial Proposition 8 in November 2008.
Following the ban, a lawsuit was filed led by two same sex couples, Sandy Stier and Kris Perry, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo. The case of Perry et al vs. Schwarzenegger (Arnie was California’s Governor then) came to a close on June 16, 2010, and this is where the play commences – with closing arguments of the legal counsels.
From this point onwards, through flashbacks at prior testimony, monologues, and interactions between the couples and their children, the lawyers for the plaintiffs and the lawyer for the defence and their variety of witnesses, we get to see the ins and outs of this genuinely incredible trial.
What makes 8 The Play extraordinary is that despite attempts to have the trial itself broadcast, an emergency appeal to the US Supreme Court made this impossible at the time, and so 8 lovingly constructs the scene and the words of those involved from the available transcripts.
Great care is taken to ensure that the play remains, at its roots, a human interest story rather than devolving into a stuffy court case docu-drama. It risks this on a few occasions as it attempts to remind its audience of the solemnity of the proceedings. This is, after all, a weighty issue – constitutional law. It’s also not the daily intake of your average theatregoer. 8 walks a fine line as it morphs testimony and court proceedings into something that is not only watchable but something you can care about.
The two couples are constructed with care, and I am thrilled to say they emerge as four human beings rather than four homosexuals – an important distinction to make where this subject matter is involved.
8 peppers itself with ads used from the Proposition 8 campaign which sought to ban gay marriage – all of them including the (to editorialise: vile and despicable) by-line “Protect Our Children”. It then proceeds to, as Defence Attorney David Boies states: “put fear and ignorance on trial”.
Though the script meanders somewhat through the testimonies of both sides, and requires some extremely blunt exposition in places to push itself along, it manages to move at a cracking pace. There are some moments where the dialogue is genuinely superb – and it’s rather incredible to stop at those moments and recall that it is verbatim from the actual court transcripts! The tension builds admirably, especially as cross-examinations proceed of those witnesses (well, actually there was only one!) called to explain why marriage between same sex couples will in fact damage society.
The result is incredible to behold. I am only sorry that this particular reading was, as the saying goes, preaching to the choir.
My main criticism of the play, and I will point out that the performance I saw on Saturday night at Sydney’s Town Hall was only a staged reading, is that it lacks cohesion, especially in the beginning , where it tends to act more as a screenplay than as a stage play. Further I’ll state the ending is entirely too hasty. In an emotional scene, the teenage son of Sandy Stier and Kristin Perry tells his mother’s that what they are doing is important and that he’s proud of them. It’s a moment beautifully rendered and the emotion within the audience was palpable.
In a brutal cut-to, the play skids to a halt with a brief recitation of facts regarding the conclusion of the court case (the decision was made to strike down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional) and the stasis in which its decision now lies as it heads for its final appeal in the US Supreme Court.“The show, however, was stolen by Magda Szubanski as the firebrand right wing activist Maggie Gallagher, imbuing the words of her asinine character with fire and irony in spectacular measure.“
All that said, given the multitude of facts presented, the rich personas conveyed and the genuine human emotion and connection to character contained in the script, given that this was only a staged reading, with 8, something remarkable has been achieved.
The performances on display on Saturday evening were first rate. It’s difficult to decide who to single out as astounding given that so many of the cast were just that! As attorney’s for the plaintiffs, Boies and Olson; and counsel for the defence Charles Cooper, Georgie Parker and Nicholas Bell, and Spencer McLaren respectively imbued their words with meaning and passion and on occasion (Bell in particular) stopped the show. Similarly Tony Martin brought a surprising accessibility and gravitas to the character of Judge Vaughan R Walker.
Shane Jacobson too deserves a mention for his incredibly well rendered performance as the sole foundering witness for the defence David Blankenhorn.
The show, however, was stolen by Magda Szubanski as the firebrand right wing activist Maggie Gallagher, imbuing the words of her asinine character with fire and irony in spectacular measure.“I heard the same opinion expressed over and over again amongst members of the audience: this was an important piece of theatre we had just witnessed“
A word too for the four actors playing the same sex couples at the heart of the trial. Catherine McClements and Rachael Blake brought sensitivity, tenderness and great humanity to the couple they played – especially in the scenes involving their two sons (played by Rob Wardrop and Blake Davis). Similarly Daniel MacPherson and Martin Crewes performed with subtle chemistry and likeability. It was a pleasure to watch the four characters as they built around the facts and the evidence offered in the testimony of the play, retaining for it, the humanity at the heart of the matter.
8 still requires development before it is ready for the stage in the full guise of a play. That said, it remains a solid capture of an important moment in the legal history of the US and an important moment in what has become a global human rights movement. In its present form, 8 would make for a sharp and punchy movie. That said, it also displays the unmistakable qualities of a genuinely dramatic and moving stage play. No doubt given the attention it has received globally since it was first presented in a reading at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on September 19, 2011, it will inevitably arrive at this destination.
In the meantime, it says a great deal for the Australian theatrical community that the Melbourne and Sydney readings were considered of necessary importance to bring to the Australian stage and that such incredible support was immediately made available to it.
Mingling amongst the crowd after the final curtain, I heard the same opinion expressed over and over again amongst members of the audience: this was an important piece of theatre we had just witnessed.
And to allow myself one (other) opportunity to editorialise: this says a great deal for Australian audiences. I look forward to the day that 8 opens at the Sydney Theatre Company. Maybe I’ll be able to go with my husband.