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New Hands on a Two-Hander

King’s Head Theatre presents Robert Chesley’s Jerker

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Sam Bennett
Tibu Fortes and Tom Joyner in Jerker2 c Joseph Sinclair resized 3

“Prudery kills. Nobody ever died from being offended”

- Robert Chesley

“That encompasses not only the work that he did and what I should be honouring in Jerker, but also what we should all be doing in the work we are creating today. It’s a great standard to hold our work to. Don’t censor ourselves, put our voices out there, let ourselves be heard.”

- Ben Anderson

Robert Chesley’s Jerker, or The Helping Hand returns to London for the first time in 29 years in a new production at King’s Head Theatre. As the Aids epidemic intensifies in the early 80s, Bert and JR begin having phone sex. They’ve never met, never seen each other and never touched, but together, they explore their wildest fantasies and the contours of their lonely souls. In addition to its erotic nature, Jerker embodies a deeper social importance. It reflects one of the worst periods in gay history, where the stigma of Aids hung over the gay community, heightening public prejudice. The fear and silence around this subject was broken by a new wave of plays that began to emerge on the topic, acknowledging the crisis, humanising lives and encouraging the need for a personal response. This two-hander is Ben Anderson’s graduate show from the King’s Head Trainee Director Scheme. As we mark National HIV Testing Week (starting 16 November) and World AIDS Day (1 December), we talk to the 27-year-old just a couple of days before rehearsals start.

How celebrated a playwright was Robert Chesley?

He would have been celebrated further if he had lived longer – he died of Aids-related complications in 1990. It’s a story that resonates with a lot of stories of that time; a really talented voice cut down early by Aids. The fact he makes Aids the subject matter of his work makes that even more poignant and his voice even more worthy of celebration.

This is the first time Jerker has been performed in London for almost 30 years – why do you think that is?

I spent a lot of time checking that, thinking, ‘I’ve got this wrong, this can’t be the first time since Stephen Daldry did it in 1990, surely someone else has had a go.’ But I couldn’t find anything. I think it’s still very provocative, it has aged very well in that sense. It will still be in the audience’s face and push the buttons that Robert Chesley wanted to push by foregrounding conversations about male and homosexual sexuality, which is brilliant. I think it’s partly that but maybe I’ll find out when we go into rehearsals that it’s really difficult to stage as well. Who knows… it’s a really exciting challenge.

© Nick Rutter

The Aids pandemic has been represented in quite a few ways in recent years – it’s part of Pose, The Inheritance, and Russell T Davies has got Boys coming soon. Have you noticed an increased level of attention to that time on both stage and screen?

Yeah. Angels in America was revived, it’s not too long since HBO did the film version of The Normal Heart as well. There does seem to be a heightened attention, preserving the stories of that time. But none of these plays are just a history; The Inheritance did that really well – asking where we have come from and where we are going now. My interest in Jerker came from that sense too. It obviously portrays a very specific moment in history – 1985 San Francisco – but also has a huge number of universal themes about human connection, love, intimacy and sexuality.

© Nick Rutter

You’re too young, as I am, to remember when people were just dropping dead in the streets. Does that affect how you approach directing a show set in that time?

It really reinforces the importance of doing my homework and understanding the period. People who lived through those moments are going to come and see the show. It’s about upholding their memories, and the memories of those who are no longer with us, respecting those voices. So there’s a lot of work. It’s about getting your head around that to be diagnosed in 1985 – as they are in Jerker – was a death sentence. Now we’ve got U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable): you cannot pass the virus on as long as your viral load is low enough and you’re on effective treatment. It’s worth thinking about that now, seeing that progress. You can see it in the contrast – you don’t need a play where we trace that exact evolution. I think sometimes looking back like that is a really good way of knowing where we’ve come from and where we’re going to go from here.

Tibu Fortes stars as Bert and Tom Joyner as JR, what were you looking for when casting?

I really wanted to find two actors who I thought could fully embrace the sense of fun and the celebration of the body that Robert Chesley wanted this piece to provide an audience with, and who also respected the task and the story and were prepared to explore that with us.

You’re a graduate of the King’s Head Trainee Director’s scheme. What key skills did you take from that?

The scheme basically allows you, for a year, to work within the theatre; to see how a theatre runs backstage and also to be an assistant director on a huge variety of shows. I managed to work on everything from immersive theatre like Trainspotting Live, to opera, new writings and pantomime. What I really took away from it was respect for the audience and for the process. You see so many directors working in different ways, and it’s a really good way to learn about how you want to work and the sort of work you want to make. And here we are with Jerker

What would you like to see more of in queer theatre?

I think there is a huge amount of queer work that went under the radar when it was first written. Sometimes they were very small pieces by writers who didn’t have much of a name behind them, sometimes they were censored – there are many reasons as to why that work might not have got the audience it deserved at the time. Now there’s an audience for those stories and it’s amazing to look back and see where they came from. I also think that there are theatres and spaces now doing amazing work at foregrounding new voices, new people and new opinions. We need to keep pushing further with that, making sure that anyone feels welcome to tell their story on stage in the UK.

Jerker is at King’s Head Theatre, London until 23 November.

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