Brief Encounter With ... Phil WillmottDate: 28 July 2009
Phil Willmott, director of F**king Men and Naked Boys Dancing, which earlier this month transferred from the King’s Head to the Arts Theatre, tells us about making a mainstream success out of gay theatre.
F**king Men first opened at the Finborough in October last year, enjoyed the longest run in the history of the London Fringe at the King’s Head and is now playing in the West End. What do you think has made it such a success?
It’s a really good piece of writing. You could change the title to The Thing About Men and put it on at the Royal Court and it would still stand-up. Nobody would go see it, but it would still be a respectable piece of drama.
The subject material is clearly very gay orientated and the title of the show is pretty provocative. Were you worried that straight audiences might be put off?
When we started out at the Finborough I thought maybe it might be fun just to do something that’s about gay men, for gay men, that doesn’t really bother about mainstream acceptance, so that we’re talking to each other, about each other. If the rest of the world wanted to come, great, if not, there’s lots of other stuff they can go and see.
People were always saying, ‘oooh, you should change the title, it puts people off’, yet it’s still very very popular and it still runs. I mean, The Vagina Monologues does fine, Shopping and F**king does fine, and there isn’t a more perfect title – it perfectly sums up what the play’s about.
Although very popular with gay men plenty of women are seeing and enjoying the show – what do you think it is that appeals to them about F**king Men?
Women like to think about men and sex. Something I’m really intrigued about is that the only time it gets mediocre reviews is when women review it. My theory is that it doesn’t quite deliver that my-best-friend-is-gay, Will and Grace sort of acceptable view of homosexuality. It’s about the way gay men behave and they don’t necessarily tell their straight best friends. And some women perhaps have found that uncomfortable. But I speak to loads of women all the time who come and enjoy it.
Is there a sense in which you’re trying to enlighten straight audiences about the reality of gay relationships?
I was quite intrigued that in 90% of gay plays what it’s about is someone looking for a boyfriend. In real life loads of gay men have loads of gay sex which has nothing to do with finding a boyfriend. I liked the idea of doing of play which said, ‘look, quite a few of us are quite promiscuous and we love having sex and we love having sex with different people’. Maybe it’s opened people’s eyes. People who didn’t know we behave like that sometimes say, ‘oh no, they don’t behave like that, it’s just stereotypes’, but actually it is really like that. So if you go into it with an open mind hopefully you learn something about your gay best friends they haven’t told you.
Your next show is a double-bill of Jason and the Argonauts and Medea, which runs from 30 July to 6 September as part of the More London Free Festival at The Scoop. Are you turning towards something a little less controversial with these shows?
This show, which will play to – over the course of the summer - 20,000-30,000 people, most of whom will have never heard of Medea, or will have never been to the theatre before, or will have never seen a Greek tragedy, I think that that will really shock them, in the way that F**king Men never did. I think when people who don’t know anything about theatre are there and when she murders her children, I think that’s going to be amazing. The lovely thing about The Scoop is that because it’s filled with people who don’t usually go to theatre, they really want to talk about it. So I’m really looking forward to it.