Green Park: Gay history repeats itself through modern technology in this unflinching al fresco play

Steve Le Marquand (left) and Joseph Althouse star in the Griffin Theatre Company's "Green Park". Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Gary Nunn reviews the Griffin Theatre Company’s new play, Green Park – a gritty production exploring gay life and sex, set and performed in the eponymous park.

This is not for the faint-hearted, easily embarrassed or those unacquainted with some of the earthier realities of gay life.

It features nanging (inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon), chemsex on GHB (a dangerous party drug), public park masturbation, daddy role play and graphic sexual fetishes. 

And all of this is done or discussed in the open air and dusky daylight of an actual park. 

Perhaps not one to take your nan to for her birthday present, but for those who like their plays bold, gritty, believable and sometimes confronting – this is for you.

In addition to being gritty, it’s innovative: the action unfolds on and around a park bench as audience members, dotted around the park, listen through headphones – reinforcing the clandestine nature of many gay hook-ups, both now and in the past, when the area was a beat (where gay men met in public for discreet sex) and a red light zone for men selling sex at ‘The Wall.’ We’re offered a window into a secret world. We’re voyeurs.  

Beneath the shock factor is a decent story, with a nod to the area’s important LGBTQI history. 

It sits within a healthy number of LGBTQI-themed plays happening in Sydney concurrently – the New Theatre is currently staging Beautiful Thing and The Pass opens at the Seymour Centre on Thursday, 11 February. 

If they offer something for everyone, Green Park will be the one that makes you gasp in either surprise or cringeworthy recognition as many of the gay man’s naughtier secrets are revealed in this unique space.

Producers took the bold decision to stage Green Park in the park itself. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Warren is old enough to be Edden’s dad and they meet in the park after swapping sexual pictures on Grindr. The age gap leads to some dark humour as Warren grapples with the new world of technology, bemusing and frustrating Edden. As they try to navigate the sex they’ll have, their foreplay interaction turns into something else. 

The lack of instant gratification initially frustrates Edden further but both men learn some lessons about themselves, each other and the world of app-facilitated hookups, of ‘discreet’ men still refusing to show their faces on Grindr – a digital closet some straight people may struggle to believe exists in a post marriage equality world. It absolutely does, and the play captures this well – especially the way that some young men like Edden fetishize it.   

In many ways, The Wall has been replaced by OnlyFans, technology facilitating an age-old profession. It’s referred to here but the audience is left to join the dots – a credit to the playwright.

This is Elias Jamieson Brown’s first mainstage play. His ear for dialogue is astute – Edden sounds so real as a Gen Z gay guy, it almost feels like verbatim theatre at points, which strengthens the verisimilitude of the interaction.

The idea of authenticity is explored through the exchange between the two men. Warren complains Edden doesn’t look like his filtered pictures, but Warren himself doesn’t even have a profile picture. Edden, who came out when he was seven, leads an openly gay life and is being true to himself in that way – but he has other secrets. None as explosive, though, as the timebomb Warren is sitting on.  

Setting it here in this park steeped in gay history is inspired. As dusk sets in, the pink glow of the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial is visible behind us. St Vincent’s Hospital – one of Australia’s first hospitals to treat AIDS patients – is next to us. The Wall still somehow looks seedy. Rainbow ghosts surround us. 

Interestingly, some recent gay culture is already historic in the piece. Bodyline is discussed a few times, with Edden threatening to go there for his kicks instead. He can’t now, of course – the long-running gay sauna closed only a few weeks ago, almost definitely after the script was finalised. The Green Park pub itself is around the corner – sadly no longer the safe space it once for LGBTQI people was after recently being bought by St Vincent’s Hospital

One of the thrills of the piece is the unusual setting – bats fly above as pedestrians pass by, perplexed, looking over to the audience, back to the bench, then back to the headphone-wearing audience again. They become part of the play, unwitting extras. Rather than distracting, it’s enriching. We feel the same rush of danger that feeds Edden and Warren in different ways. 

Joseph Althouse is thoroughly convincing as Edden. I had to check if his occasional stumble over words was in the script – it was – and it was delivered in a way that made his big personality sound plausible – full of bravado, somewhat lost and seemingly sex obsessed. 

As the troubled and secretive Warren, Steve Le Marquand is a steady hand in a difficult role: his character has only flashes of redemption but they’re delivered with authenticity and confidence.

Is there hope here? It’s difficult to find it. The play has forgone the audience’s perhaps soppy need for that and has chosen to do something braver: depict reality. In all its messy and sometimes seedy glory. 

Joseph Althouse (left) and Steve Le Marquand perform in Green Park as theatregoers watch from the lawn of the eponymous park. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Green Park by the Griffin Theatre Company is performed in Green Park, Darlinghurst, at 7.15pm, various dates, between 5 February and 6 March, 2021. Visit https://griffintheatre.com.au/whats-on/green-park/ for further details.