By Tiffany Bowman
“There is an evil among us that goes unspoken. And that evil I want to share with you today is the epidemic rise in homosexuals.” A bold statement to make in a theatre not far from Manchester’s Gay Village. The play is set in present day Uganda, exploring the horrific reality that many homosexuals face. It is clear why the play won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting back in 2013 – the writing is ambitious and willing to tackle the issue of homophobia across the globe through a combination of metaphysical commentary and humour.
The play is named after the newspaper in Uganda which printed the names of several homosexuals in 2010, calling for their deaths. After it was ruled that the paper violated the basic rights of homosexual Ugandans, its right to publish was suspended.
This play is unique as it is not orientated around first world, domestic issues, rather it grants access to a world its Western audience wouldn’t usually be exposed to. Playwright Chris Urch’s ability to create genuine, flawed characters allows us to empathise with problems outside of the UK. He uses Sam, an outsider from Northern Ireland, to represent us and to allow us to enter this unfamiliar territory.
The story follows Demebe, a homosexual Ugandan, who is in a secret relationship with Sam. Their relationship comes under threat when Sam’s phone goes missing, which contains many photos of Demebe on it. Demebe’s brother, Joe, is the community Pastor, and it is his job to condemn homosexual behaviour.
Joe delivers the most powerful speech of the play. Following accusations of his brother’s homosexuality, he preaches to the community about the sins of engaging with someone of the same sex. He points at random members of the audience, telling them it is their duty to report anyone they suspect of being gay. Theatre which engages the audience and places them in a position they find uncomfortable is provoking. The execution of this technique in The Rolling Stone demonstrates the strength of Urch’s writing.
The final dialogue between Demebe, Joe, and Wummie as they consider how to deal with Demebe’s exposure is particularly poignant. The family drama doesn’t seem so removed from the conversations we have with our own families, and whilst they experience a heightened sense of danger, it wasn’t hard to place myself in their shoes. This play doesn’t have to be read as a political commentary, rather it explores family bonds and challenges how far we would go to protect the ones we love.
The play featured musical interludes, featuring notable hymns such as Nearer My God To Thee. This allowed the audience access to a world far away from the streets of Manchester. The songs were also good for setting the tone of the piece.
The staging was simple but effective, consisting of an elevated platform in the centre of the stage, which served as the set for every location, from a bedroom to a pulpit. It was a clever technique which allowed for smooth transitions between scenes. Moreover, the minimalistic set suggested that these issues are universal and can take place anywhere. Homophobia exists in many places, it’s just that some countries are affected more by it.
Overall, The Rolling Stone is a socially relevant and important play. Many writers may have been tempted to simply identify the problem, but Urch goes beyond this. He places the audience in the shoes of those who are victimised, such as Joe, and challenges our preconceptions towards these issues.
The Rolling Stone runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 1st May. Book tickets here.
Tiffany Bowman is a student and writer, studying English and Creative Writing. Follow her on twitter @Tiffster221