Matt Parvin is the writer of Gentlemen, where old fashioned toxic masculinity clashes with contemporary queer rights in the world premiere of this taut new play.
Matt Parvin’s previous work for Arcola includes Alice in Wonderland. He also trained as part of the Arcola Theatre Writer’s Programme.
Gentlemen examines what happens when convention and institutionalised culture are called to account by new standards of what is acceptable. Initially set to open in March 2020, Gentlemen debuts post pandemic at the Arcola Theatre 4 – 28 Oct 2023.
Gentlemen is coming to Arcola Theatre, what can you tell us about your new play?
It starts with a disagreement between two students in a college at a prestigious university. The college’s ‘Welfare Officer’ has invited them to his office to resolve the dispute before it develops. I don’t want to spoil where the story goes, but the Welfare Officer does not resolve the students’ rift. Their disagreement evolves into something far grander, and far more troubling.
The play weaves in a lot of areas, including speech, class, and bi-erasure. But our brilliant director Richard always says that, at its heart, it’s a play about survival. If you feel your survival is threatened, how far should you go?
What inspired you to write it?
Primarily it was inspired by my experience at university, and the experiences of my friends. Specifically, experiences related to laddish young men, and how the universities functioned as institutions – or, occasionally, failed to function.
Early drafts were much smaller in scope. The feedback of friends and colleagues – notably the actors and dramaturgs Will Merrick and Tom York – made me think that there was a much larger play to be discovered. We realised that the moral and ethical conundrums in the story deserved to be explored on a grander canvas.
What did you find most difficult about writing it?
I wanted the play to be entertaining, but also to ask troubling questions – questions that might trouble audiences, and that certainly trouble me. Questions about the characters’ actions, and about certain trends in society. I didn’t want the audience to emerge with answers to these questions, or to feel that they could easily draw any conclusions about my personal opinions or about the moral character of the people the play depicts.
It was tough to finesse all of this, alongside a clear and entertaining plot. It can be hard to find the right balance, but it’s worth it if audiences emerge from the auditorium unable to wrap up the piece in a neat bow.
It was due to premiere in March 2020, how did it feel having to postpone due to the pandemic, and what does it mean to you that it’s finally getting to debut?
Postponing the show was gutting, and surreal. But we did reach our dress rehearsal before the theatres closed, and that afternoon was one of my favourite from working in theatre. It felt special, and I have a lot of wonderful memories from it. I think that afternoon actually gave us the drive to make sure we got this play on.
It means so much that it’s back! I can’t wait to be in the auditorium, watching audiences go on this journey.
Why do you think the Arcola Studio is the perfect space for Gentlemen?
It really is the perfect space! The stage is thrust, so audiences are on three sides. Essentially the audience forms the walls of the office. The actors are able to just ‘play the room’, and provide a lot of detail that would be lost in other spaces. You’re separate from the actors, but you’re up close – you’ll see everything they go through.
The script talks about the setting’s brick walls – this is meant to conjure a very particular place and feeling. And, fittingly, the Arcola Studio has lovely brickwork. It is also just quite an evocative space, I think.
What would you say to anyone thinking of booking to see Gentlemen?
This play does everything I want from theatre – it makes you laugh, it makes you think, it lives off an audience going on a journey. And it really is a journey – in fact, it’s a thrill-ride! It’s set in a university office but it’s a rollercoaster. You won’t see where it’s going.
Gentlemen by Matt Parvin is on at the Arcola Theatre, 4-28 October. Supported using public funding by the National ottery through Arts Council England.