Written and directed by David Atfield.
The Street Theatre. Until November 23.
For ages 18 and over. Bookings: 62471223 or thestreet.org,au.
The set for Scandalous Boy is dominated by a huge and satiny circular bed. But that's hardly to be noticed as the naked statue of Antinous (Ethan Gibson), favourite and lover of the Emperor Hadrian (Nicholas Eadie) comes right down to the front of the stage and starts to chat to a modern audience. He's mockingly aware that nearly two thousand years of Christian attitudes to modesty and sexuality have had their effect on some and he will on occasion during the course of the evening put on a pair of spangled briefs.
But Antinous, heir to the Greek tradition of the young male lover (eromenos) of an older man and trained to be such, is not very concerned about either audience sensibilities or their admiration. He's now a god, the grieving Hadrian having deified him after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile, but he still wants to puzzle out what the relationship might have amounted to.
David Atfield's play catches a remarkable sense of an ancient sensibility. Gibson's jaunty and good-humoured young man does not care what a modern audience might think. Neither does Eadie's gruff, brutal and vulnerable Hadrian. For a short time the pair dismissively discuss the radical views of the upcoming Christians, but theirs is a world where even Antinous' mother Vebia (Emma Strand in a deft cameo) is quite happy to hand her young son over to what amounts to sexual slavery when he goes to train as an eromenos.
How this training enables him to deal with a relationship with the Emperor is the substance of the play as is his increasing awareness that Hadrian can age but that the young lover cannot, unless he is content to remain at court like the cast-off Lucius (Raoul Craemer). Then there is the matter of the equally cast-off Empress Sabina (Strand) whose ideals vanish during a horrendous wedding night. There will be no heir to the empire except by adoption. And Antinous will never be seen as an acceptable candidate or a son.
The word "love" is tossed around but the realities are not so easy. Antinous might be better off with a straightforward relationship like the one he has with the wrestler Marcellus (James Hughes) but an eromenos lacks choice.
The content of the play is often adult and sometimes difficult but there is a great deal of humour and strength in the performances under Atfield's brisk direction. The clothes are modern, except when clothes are abandoned altogether and the ancient statues and friezes of youths and wrestlers are evoked. Modern clothes feed an awareness that many of the play's concerns are far from past.
Scandalous Boy may still scandalise some but at its best it is thoughtful and joyously explicit. And a talking naked statue is hard to ignore.