The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey conducted by the Australian Government in 2017 was a controversial decision that sparked a turbulent and retraumatising time for LGBTQIA+ people, particularly those who remembered the recent civil rights debates in Tasmania. From 1988-1997 gay rights activists campaigned to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania, the last state to do so; a campaign honoured in Campion Decent’s verbatim play the Campaign.
Composed of material from interviews, transcripts of Parliamentary debates, polls, news reports, and speeches, Decent’s script follows the TGLRG (Tasmanian Gay & Lesbian Rights Group) from their days getting arrested at Salamanca Market in 1988 for handing around a petition to change state law to the eventual law reform in 1997 and in to the new millennia with the postal survey. The central figures of the nine year campaign were Rodney Croome (Mathew Lee) and Nick Toonen (Simon Croker) but their activism spread to include many recognisable faces including politicians like Christine Milne (Jane Phegan), representatives of the Church like Bob Thorpe (Tim McGarry), and the Honourable Michael Kirby (McGarry). The campaign against the law, which made consensual, private sex between adult men punishable by up to 21 years imprisonment, was a trial for Tasmania and the vitriolic debate that raged had lasting impacts on LGBTQIA+ Tasmanians like Hannah Gadsby who discussed the homophobia of her youth in Nanette in 2017. But it’s not a moment in history often remembered on the mainland, which makes this staging as part of the 2020 Mardi Gras Festival in the first Australian city to host a Pride parade particularly poignant.
The ensemble cast of Croker, Lee, McGarry, Phegan, and Madeline MacRea under the direction of Kim Hardwick carry the words of the activists, their families, and allies lightly with a respect tinted by nostalgia. There is patience afforded to bittersweet feelings of success and Hardwick’s pacing accommodates plenty of pauses for embracing and reflecting. At the same time, the nature of the verbatim script requires the actors to voice the backlash and hatred the campaign received, largely portrayed by McGarry who plays the likes of Rodney Cooper and other conservatives with remarkable flexibility and attention to character.
Additionally, Lee provided a grounded energy to his characters with a touching connection especially from the inclusion of testimony from Rodney Croome’s mother, portrayed by Phegan with warmth. Phegan and MacRea represented the lesbian activists involved in challenging the law that only criminalised male homosexuality while erasing the existence of other LGBTQIA+ identities. Of particular irony was Lee-Gwen Booth’s (MacRae) experience as a lesbian activist arrested in Salamanca with her weeks old baby, creating unpredicted complications for arresting officers and generally disrupting assumptions about gay rights activists.
Production design by Martin Kinnane featured a wall of fabric layered like sheets or sails onto which markers of the action were projected (dates, locations, etc). On such a literal blank canvas he used variations of realist warm washes, spot lights for intimate moments, and atmospheric blue and purple to keep the empty space dynamic. In the final moments, TGLRG activist Todd Harper (Lee) recounts bringing his nephew and partner to the Hobart parade and the deeply emotional experience it was to see the modern streets of Hobart celebrating when hatred is in such recent memory. This moment of reverence for the steady march of progress was broken by the beats of a pop club anthem and the cast rejoining Lee for a Mardi Gras dance party.
The stories of activists like Rodney, Nick, Todd, Lee-Gwen, and the others in TGLRG are imperative to understanding the current social and political climate for marginalised people in Australia. Remembrance of their struggles and the many gains left to be made in the fight for liberation and equity are at the heart of the Mardi Gras celebration.
The Campaign is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from February 11th – 28th as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival