My Night with Reg
It was World AIDS Day on December 1 when we met director Robert Hastle in Covent Garden. Which couldn’t have been more apt, considering we were in his office to talk about his acclaimed 20th anniversary revival of one of the landmark British plays about HIV and AIDS – Kevin Elyot’s Olivier-winning My Night with Reg. Following its success last year at the Donmar Warehouse – where Robert is associate director – it’s transferring to the West End.
First performed in 1994 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, My Night with Reg deals with the devastating effect on a group of gay friends of their respective encounters with the titular – but never seen – Reg.
Moving seamlessly between comedy and tragedy, the play captures the fear and uncertainty in the British gay community at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Thankfully, the treatment of HIV and AIDS – both medically and socially – has evolved since. Diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. But with recent figures released by Public Health England showing a continued increase in HIV infection rates among young gay men, My Night with Reg is far from a period piece. Elyot’s often heart-breaking study of the ties binding friendships during illness and loss resonates powerfully today.
Robert, 37, whose direction of My Night with Reg earned him an Emerging Talent nomination at the recent Evening Standard Awards, saw the original production’s West End transfer while on a National Youth Theatre trip. “I was completely blindsided by it,” he says. Growing up in Scarborough, he continues: “It wasn’t even that I’d only seen gay stereotypes on stage before. As far as I know, I hadn’t seen any representations at all.”
What most struck Robert as a gay teenager, out to his friends and family but not to the wider world, was Elyot’s focus – five years before Russell T Davies did it in Queer as Folk – on “gay men just living their lives, with a variety of relationships and friendships and personalities I’d never seen before.” For all that happens to
them, these aren’t tokenistic or selfloathing characters.
Robert would use a speech from the play in his RADA audition and, after switching tracks from acting to directing, he jumped at the chance to revive it at the Donmar. But first he had to convince the formidable Elyot – also responsible for 2007 Channel 4 gay drama Clapham Junction – that he was right for the job. “He was fucking terrifying the first time I met him, dressed in black Prada in the corner of The Delaunay,” recalls Robert. “I very much had to audition for him.”
So what was Elyot – known to friends as ‘the Empress’ – like? “He had a naughty sense of humour, he was a perfectionist and he played imperious with a very sharp tongue in his cheek,” recalls Robert fondly. By the end of their first meeting, he’d succeeded in winning the playwright round. “And we then spent a happy few months working on the play together.”
Sadly, Elyot passed away after a bout illness before rehearsals began. “There was a strange symmetry to the whole thing,” says Robert. “His funeral was on the Friday, the wake was in the rehearsal room and we started rehearsals on the Monday for this play about having been to a funeral.” Smiling, he continues: “He was a master craftsman and, as small consolation, I’d like to think he might have appreciated his own comic timing.”
My Night with Reg still stands up because it’s “a beautifully constructed piece of theatre,” says Robert. Knowingly writing in a tradition of drawing-room comedy, Elyot “takes that DNA from Wilde, Coward and Rattigan – all of them, of course, gay writers – and makes it explicit, fresh and new.” And comedy masking something “much more complicated and dark” is such a “driving force in English theatre,” Robert points out.
“And I think all of Kevin’s plays are personal,” he continues, “in the sense that he’s always writing about that moment in life where paths diverged or an opportunity was missed.” It’s no surprise to Robert that, in his final years, Elyot wrote several episodes of Miss Marple and Poirot. “Because the murder mystery is all about trying to recreate a moment.”
And a sense of melancholia – of a lost moment – pervades My Night with Reg through its older characters. “They’re the generation who were born when homosexuality was still illegal,” says Robert. Then came the greater freedom of the 70s. “So, if you were one of those men, you could be forgiven for thinking that, finally, you could live your life as you chose to live it. And then along comes something – HIV and AIDS – that completely redraws the map.”
When Robert’s production opened, some of his gay friends worried that the characters reinforced negative stereotypes of gay behaviour. That’s not how he sees it. “The play isn’t angrily political in the way that the American dramatic response [to HIV and AIDS] was,” he reflects. “But because Kevin was such a brilliant writer, he’s stitched in his biggest political statement – that this disease does not correlate with morality.”
He continues: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re behaving in ways that mainstream society thinks you shouldn’t or whether [like one character] you’re actually virtually celibate. It makes no difference.”
In its own poignantly funny way, My Night with Reg shows that HIV and AIDS doesn’t discriminate – society does. And when all-gay plays are still a relatively rare sight in major British theatres, Robert is proud that its success at the Donmar has opened the play to new audiences at the Apollo Theatre. “Kevin always wanted it to go to the West End again,” he reveals, “so I hope he’d be delighted, too.”