Tom arrives at a rural farmhouse with the expectations of an uncomfortable but predictable encounter with his deceased partner’s family. His presence, though, unravels a long string of lies and secrecy stretching from William’s childhood into their relationship, right up until he died. Perhaps even more unexpected, though, is what Tom learns about himself deep in the muck of the farm.
Playwright Michel Marc Bouchard wrote about this play as exploring how gay people become myth-makers, forced to lie about themselves early on to survive in a society that actively punishes them. For him, the tragedy at the heart of Tom at the Farm is that “[h]omosexuals learn to lie before they learn to love.” In this production of the translated script by Linda Gaboriau, director Danny Ball leant into other common queer cultural phenomena, as well, the death drive, masochism, and internalised homophobia, in a dark, twisted, erotic narrative of clashing realities.
When Tom (Zoran Jevtic) arrives at the farmhouse of his deceased lover’s family, he is greeted with surprise, not just at his unexpected arrival but at his existence. Tom quickly learns through William’s brother Francis (Rory O’Keeffe) that the brothers had been maintaining the facade of William’s heterosexuality since childhood, going so far as to invent a girlfriend for William and to elide entirely his relationship with Tom. Through violence and outright threats of murder, Francis embroils Tom in the web of lies that he justifies with a desire to protect his mother Agatha (Di Adams) from the truth of why William left the family farm and, perhaps more importantly, why Francis stayed. While following Francis around the farm, Tom is caught up in an inescapable roller coaster between awesome moments of grace and meaning, like the birth of a calf, and shocking violence, like Francis hogtie-ing him and hanging him above the cattle burial pit. But it all comes to an end when Agatha uncovers William and Francis’s secrets and the fictional girlfriend (Hannah Raven) arrives at the farm.
Tom at the Farm echoed an earlier production at Kings Cross Theatre Tell Me Before the Sun Explodes both thematically and aesthetically. Where the rough wooden floorboards of the latter represented disease and decay, the raw edges of set designer Kate Beere’s farm house alluded to the backwardness or unsophistication of the rural setting. The dramatic lighting design by Kate Baldwin and Alice Stafford used vertically rigged lights like Tell Me Before the Sun Explodes but also frequent under-lighting for a spooky supernatural tone that recalled warning tales of hellfire and brimstone. Composer and sound designer Chrysoulla Markoulli breathed an organic, earthy atmosphere into the production with naturalistic night noises of crickets and bird calls. Similarly, the costuming by Rachael Adamson was practical in conveying the difference between turtlenecked city-slicker Tom and flannel-wearing country boy Francis.
Additionally, in terms of the themes, Tom at the Farm again chimed with Tell Me Before the Sun Explodes with their shared central figures mourning the loss of a loved one while also engaging in a tangled, forbidden flirtation. Only, in Bouchard’s script, the violence inflicted was psychological, emotional, and explicitly physical. This added element of violence complicated Tom’s involvement with William’s family by muddling his complicity with William and Francis’s lies and the homophobic erasure of Tom and William’s relationship. The plot was intriguing but more so for the inexplicability of Tom’s choices rather than any kind of complex exploration of desire, sexuality, and violence. The performances, particularly of the male characters, were emotionally muted and impenetrable, making the huge swings in tone from tenderness to violence unpredictable and disconnected. Whether this was a deliberate choice to amplify Tom’s position as both helpless victim and willing accomplice, it was hard to follow and seemed at-odds with both Agatha and Sara’s quite genuine confusion about the relationship between Tom and Francis.
At the same time, the sadomasochistic elements played interestingly with a queer, toxic masculinity inflected approach to the popular erotica tropes of enemies to lovers or close proximity relationships like smash sensations Fifty Shades of Grey, 365 Days, or Twisted Love. Through this lens, Tom and Francis were merely performing another layer of fantasy atop a decades-old facade of violence and control already established by Francis with William.
Either way, the performances varied between coolness and sincerity in another duality between city and country, true and false, straight and gay. Jevtic’s Tom appeared slick and sophisticated but with an anxious-edge revealed in the unfamiliar surroundings of dirt and animals. His opposite, O’Keeffe as Francis was hulking, commanding, and frightening whether sulking, brooding, or screaming. The two had a harsh, unfriendly dynamic that never quite payed off but was palpably sinister for O’Keeffe’s control of the stage. Adams’s performance added a customary softness and humanity to the production with an empathetic representation of a woman routinely denied choice and control. She remained an emotional touchstone for the audience throughout, even when the appearance of Sara brought a cruel humour into her house. If Adams was soft then Raven was sharp, but with a clarity of character and purpose that was a relief near the end of an otherwise exhaustingly opaque storyline.
Other than the obvious translation from French to English, some other element of Tom at the Farm struggled to bridge the divide between character and audience, to translate the emotions, motivations, and desires outside of themselves and the violence they inflicted. As such, the production ultimately rang brutally hollow.
Tom at the Farm is running at Kings Cross Theatre from August 26th – September 10th
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