PAUL FOLEY recommends an impassioned plea for tolerance in a country where being ‘denounced’ as gay is tantamount to a death sentence
The Rolling Stone
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
IN THIS excellent and intense play — winner of the prestigious Bruntwood Prize — writer Chris Urch tackles the rise of anti-gay violence and intolerance in Uganda, where a government egged on by religious zealots has tried to make homosexuality a capital offence.
Urch conducts a fiercely intelligent examination of the impact of bigotry and fear on a community weighed down by poverty and the legacy of colonialism and his characters have a depth that makes their trauma all the more convincing — and frightening.
The play tells the story of Irish doctor Sam (Robert Gilbert) who, having emigrated to the birthplace of his mother, falls in love with the young Ugandan man Dembe (Fiston Barek).
But there is a huge gulf in cultural awareness between the two lovers. Sam cannot understand why Dembe is so reluctant to tell his family about their relationship. Even in Ireland, he explains, gay people are subjected to being called “faggots” yet in doing so he appears oblivious to Dembe’s situation, where being “denounced” as gay is tantamount to a death sentence.
Dembe’s life is further complicated by the fact that his brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is the village pastor, a significant position in rural areas where the church is the centre of power in daily life.
But this is a religion with the distorted values of a Christianity imposed by colonial missionaries and which is used to control communities.
Given its subject matter, this might be expected to be hard going but that’s certainly not the case — there are some lovely comic moments which show Urch as a gifted writer who trusts the audience to determine its own response to what is unfolding on stage.
Ambiguity is this work’s great strength — nothing is straightforward, whether it’s Sam’s complex attitude to his own sexuality or Dembe’s struggle to come to terms with his devout religious beliefs, his emotional feelings and the fundamental importance of familial love.
Ellen McDougall’s direction is light-touch and an excellent cast deliver a beautifully nuanced and thoughtful piece of work. Unfortunately, The Rolling Stone has only a short run but hopefully it will be revived in theatres around the country. It deserves nothing less.Runs until May 1, box office: royalexchange.co.uk