“Four Play”, a refreshing look at how modern relationships survive

Above The Stag is delighted to announce that it will be bringing Jake Brunger’s witty and comic play, FOUR PLAY to Vauxhall this January and February. A darkly comiclooks at sex and commitment in the 21st century, Four Play ran in Above The Stag theatre’s newly refurbished studio this January. Exploring the muddy dynamics of faithfulness and infidelity, the play questions what it takes to make a couple truly ‘compatible’.

Rafe and Pete have hit a rut. After seven-and-a-half blissfully happy years, their lack of sexual experience is driving them apart – so when they proposition mutual friend Michael to help out with their problems, knowing full well that Michael has his own partner Andrew, what naively seems like a simple solution,  quickly spirals out of control.

Is it harder for couples to commit, now more than ever? Will Rafe and Pete survive the twists and turn of modern love?

Four Play also takes a refreshing and honest look at how relationships survive a digitally swamped world where conversations play out behind screens and love is displayed in a flurry of selfies. Peeling back the lid on how gay relationships work in a modern world inundated with dating and hook-up apps, Four Play finds a natural home at Above The Stag – famed for programming work that tackles these issues head on.

YASS met one of the unforgettable protagonists Mark McKinnon and writer Jake Brunger and talked about this beautiful play piece.

-What made you say YES to this role?

Before taking a show, I make sure I can bring something unique to it, and that It will be a positive experience. Having the opportunity in Four Play to physically normalise and celebrate a larger silhouette in the gay community was a big deciding factor for me. You don’t often see large gay men on stage in any sort of genuine romantic role, so I was very excited to have the chance of exploring that.

I do like to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone and push boundaries, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to continue that. It was nerve wracking though. It wasn’t a clear yes at the start, but I’m very glad to have accepted the role and to perform in this show every night.

-What is your opinion regarding your role in the play? Does he have any similarities with you?

Andrew and I are around 80% the same person, so I thought that would make things easier but actually it’s more of a challenge because I have a responsibility to serve the script and tell his story, reaching his moments of vulnerability without peppering bits of my life into the mix. There are moments where Andrew remains incredibly strong, where I think I would crumble, and so I have to get over my own anxieties and play HIS truth. But navigating that has been so much fun and has had a positive effect on me as a person too. I feel a bit braver in myself because of him.

-Your role was the biggest revelation in the play, and you captivated everyone! Did you expect that so many people could relate to you?

You flirt! Thank you very much!

In all seriousness, I never anticipated how much this character would speak to audiences but I’m incredibly proud that people relate to him. I think there’s a little bit of Andrew in most people.

What were your first thoughts when you read the script?

I really enjoyed it. It’s written in a very believable conversational way, so learning it was a massive challenge because we are all constantly interrupting each other. That being said, Jake’s writing is so strong that we all knew we had something special on the first day when we read through the script together. Every character you meet in Four Play is rooted in so much truth, it’s hard not to be sucked into their world and to see these men reflected in the world around us.

What was the most challenging part of the show? And what did you enjoy the most?

Every show has its challenges, but I think with Four Play, the enjoyment has far outweighed anything else. I feel incredibly proud to come into work every day and perform this show with this talented lot! Show wise, I love the dinner party. It’s a rare point in the show where all four of us get to come together and interact with each other.

Do you think long term couples face the problems that were portrayed in the show?

I think all couples face some of the problems portrayed in the show, and that’s what makes it so relevant. Being a partnership, whether open or monogamous, comes with challenges and strains that warrant proper communication in order to make these types of arrangements work. When you throw in the complexities of the human heart on top of that, I’m sure there will humans in the audience who will have faced, or at least appreciate, most of the situations we play out on stage.

Do you feel it is hard to discuss sexual problems with a partner?

I’ve never really had to have those discussions. I’ve been a serial singleton up till this point. I’ve actually had more relationships on stage than off! But I think if the right human came along, I’d hope that we could discuss our lives very freely with each other. I guess that’s an adventure that’s yet to come.

How do you feel about being nominated for an Offie?

It’s very exciting and I’m incredibly grateful! It’s always a pleasure to be recognised for the work that you put into a production. Above the Stag have been such a great company to work for, the cast of Four Play (Keeran Blessie, Ashley Byam & Declan Spaine) have been so supportive on and off-stage, Matthew Illife has directed us and nurtured these characters to make them believable humans, which were given life by Jake in this gorgeous play. There is so much effort that goes into every show by everyone involved and I’m thrilled to have the good fortune of being recognised for my contribution to our team. It’s a wonderful experience.

Tell us something about you that we do not know!

I’m a Pisces ascendant Libra with a Sagittarius moon (if anyone knows what that means, hit me up!)

What are your future plans?

The plan is to keep acting and find the next exciting role after the show finishes. Aside from acting, I’m going to do some travelling around Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

Playwright Jake Briger, writer of FOUR PLAY talks to Jon Bradfield and answers to our questions.

What made you write this play?

It was originally commissioned by the Old Vic Theatre’s new writing arm, Old Vic New Voices, back in 2014. They wanted me to write a “state of the nation” gay play. I think they expected me to do something about gay marriage or adoption, but I realised that the biggest hurdle in getting to either of those things was simply being in a relationship itself. In a world wherea ‘hetero’ lifestyle is now so seemingly available to us, how do we adapt to that?

What was the first concrete thing you thought or wrote that was recognisably “this play”.

The whole play came entirely from Rafe’s opening speech. I wrote that first, and the play came next; I didn’t know how the characters were going to react or what would happen to the couples at the end. It’s not often as a writer you write so blindly, but thankfully in this case it worked itself out. I just knew there was something juicy in Rafe and Pete propositioning Michael,  and what would  happen  if and when Andrew found out.

There are almost no stage directions in your script – did you have an idea of how it might be staged?

I’m not sure where the whole no-stage- directions thing came from. I guess I just didn’t want to patronise actors or directors by telling them how to deliver it or stage it, and I was curious as to how it would be interpreted by giving nothing away. My work prior to this had been predominantly writing musical theatre, where there are endless stage directions, so maybe this was my way of rebelling!

I might be wrong, but I don’t think I know many gay male long term couples who are entirely monogamous – whether that’s a fully open thing or just playing with guys together. Do you think that’s about right?

I know a handful of gay couples who are totally monogamous, and they seem to be very happy, but no, it does seem that the norm is something a bit more flexible. There’s a great phrase, “monogamish” – where you’re committed to another person but can have sex with other people within a set of rules. It’s when the rules break that things go wrong, which is what this play looks at.

Do you think gay couples need to shake off old ideas about what a couple is, sexually? Are we trapped and confused by such ideas?

I don’t think there are any fixed ideas anymore – we’re in such an ‘anything goes’ era when it comes to sex and relationships. I’m 32 now, and even chatting to the director of this revival, who’s almost a decade younger, I feel like a dinosaur! The new generation don’t tend to put labels on stuff really – they sort of see how they’re feeling.

But obviously that desire to be part of a couple still hums loudly; look at how many #instagays are getting engaged. Maybe they’re craving the hetero thing their parents had, and they’re the first generation for it to just be the norm. But on the flipside they can also be in a thrupple, or open, and their friends and family be totally a-ok with that too. If there’s confusion, it probably stems from the fact that there are so many ways to be in a relationship in 2020. You’ve just got to find someone who’s on the same page and shares those ideals.

Do you think as a community we talk about navigating this stuff enough? Or indeed as partners, as lovers? I think it can be surprisingly hard to talk about sexual worries with a boyfriend – sometimes it’s easier to try and steer things without talking about them, or to ignore issues.

Well this is why I wrote the play really. A lot of people do just bury their feelings, when it would be so much better to be openly discussed. I personally don’t understand gay couples who are in those ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ situations; sleeping around with whoever they like but keeping it totally secret. That’s very affair-y for me – there has to be rules. Things go wrong for gay couples when they stop communicating, which just leads to affairs or a betrayal of those rules. Hopefully this play will make couples talk about their own arrangements!

Do you think it’s easier or more straightforward for people in traditional relationships, with that template, those expectations – and that almost default goal of having children?

Jealousy and hurt are tricky things to navigate regardless of the set parameters, so no matter what the arrangement is it’s got to be those feelings that are listened to and respected above all else. I’m not sure what having kids does to a relationship’s sexual freedom though; maybe that’ll be a play I write in a decade’s time when I’ve (possibly!) been there.

What playwrights and plays do you admire?

Growing up my favourite writers were Rebecca Gilman, David Lindsay-Abaire and David Mamet. All American interestingly. Gilman’s play The Sweetest Swing in Baseball is long overdue for revival and Mamet’s dialogue is still the best of any writer; Sexual Perversity in Chicago will always be one of my favourites. In the last few years The Humans by Stephen Karam is the best play I’ve seen though; it’s the kind of play that Americans do so much better than us – putting really big issues into tiny dinner party dramas.

Can you tell me about a play or show that you thought explored an aspect of gay or otherwise LGBT+ life particularly well?

The Inheritance was a milestone event in gay theatre. It gets flack for not being representative of the gay community as a whole but it’s not meant to be; it’s a very specific story about privileged white New Yorkers. On the flipside of that world though I found Moonlight completely engrossing, and on TV Looking was the best exploration of city gay life we have.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m mainly writing for film and TV at the moment. I have a film coming out in Spring – Love Sarah starring Celia Imrie – and 2020 will mostly be me sat in Pret a Manger drinking 99p filter coffee writing film and TV scripts. It’s a weird life!

How did you become a writer?

I wrote a play when I was 17 called Sam’s Game that was produced by Nottingham Playhouse and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, who now runs the Kiln. I know that sounds crazily young, but I was completely obsessed with theatre from the word go – I’ve never wanted to do anything else; I wrote scripts from the age of 9!

See Jake Brunger’s FOUR PLAY with Marc McKinnon at Above The Stag theatre until February 22nd. More information and tickets: https://abovethestag.org.uk/whatson/four-play/

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