Leather was written in the late 1980s and took a long time to write. Most plays are playwrights’ arguments with themselves and this one was particularly fierce.
It arose out of the break-up of my first serious relationship and the emotional devastation it caused.
How dare he leave me? And for THAT?! The mixture of emotions it roused included among other things a murderous desire for revenge.
An emotion so troubling that it had over time to be dealt with through writing about it. This resulted in Grand Passion first, and then in Leather.
Many of my plays deal with the theme of redemption. Not in a specifically religious sense but written in the belief that if people are not redeemable, even the most unlikely people, then there is no hope for the world.
We are condemned to a perpetual opposition, walled up in the towers of our beliefs forever in a state of war. We are seeing this most disturbingly in the arguments over the conflicting claims of women’s and trans rights which have reached a state of biliousness from which there seems no way of retreat or accommodation.
This is not wishy-washy liberalism, because it is in many cases really hard to conceive a situation where redemption is possible for certain characters. The southern red-neck in A Good Ol’ Boy, for example, is brought to the beginnings of a possibility of change by playing one prejudice off against another.
So, when I wrote Leather I was taking those feelings of murderous revenge, seeing where they led, and then trying to find the redemption. In other words, in my mind Phil, a self-portrait, was the main character, and the play was his Calvary.
Gordon, his younger partner, poor damaged Gordon, was the object through, round and over which Phil’s journey played out. Yet in what I hoped was scrupulous fairness, Gordon had to live and in order to live he had to be written from the inside in all his complexity. Without a credible Gordon, Phil’s struggle made no sense.
It’s a strange experience for writers to discover when they thought they had written one play, or novel, to discover that they have really written something else. Even stranger to discover that they don’t quite know what they have written.
Coming back to Leather at a distance of thirty years, I found that the 'redemption’ I had written for Phil at the end of the play was merely a glib, semi-happy ending which had been tacked on unconvincingly. If Phil is to have a redemption, he will have to find it in another play, one which I have yet to write.
In recognition of this, I have included three endings to the script: the original, the one to be used in any new stage production, and the one which we used for the Zoom performance in our series of Lockdown reading during Covid.
The play is set in the mid-1980s, and part of that setting is the political landscape. There is an anti-fascist demonstration which characters attend, and Phil is subsequently arrested. It may be hard to appreciate the extent to which neo-Nazis were active politically at the time, and the popular backlash against them.
There were three formal political parties, the National Front, the British National Party under John Tyndall, and the British National Socialist Movement. The NF contested 303 seats in the 1979 election but later gave up parliamentary politics in favour of building cadres of white working-class young men dedicated to street demonstration.
A great deal of violence and racist activity ensued. The 1981 Pride March in Huddersfield was beset by marauding groups of skinheads, against which the police provided protection before the march, but little through the town afterwards.
The BNP peaked during the 2009/10 elections, getting over half a million votes in the UK Parliamentary Elections in 2010 and in the Euro-elections of 2009 they got nearly a million votes and two seats. Most of that electoral support migrated to UKIP after 2010, and most recently to the Conservatives.
Against those was arrayed a motley crew ranging from the National Council for Civil Liberties [NCCL] to the Anti-Nazi League.
The ANL had wide support from the Unions, from some Labour MPs and from a spectrum of prominent media personalities, and most importantly from a loose association of rock and pop performers in Rock Against Racism.
These included The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, my friend Tom Robinson and Aswad. These organised and appeared a heady series of festivals all over the country. Attacks on lesbian and gay people, arson on gay premises and black venues, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations.
This is the landscape of any gay activist of the 1980s until strength and attention was partially diverted by the AIDS crisis post 1985.
If this now seems a period piece, it is still integral to the play, because one of the themes of the play is to make a series of fine ‘compare-and-contrast’ distinctions between all forms of aggression and violence, consensual and non-consensual, social and personal, public and private.
Nowadays, with the elevation of the concept of ‘micro-aggressions’ the gradations have been somewhat lost, so a hand on knee becomes a source of outrage equally with ‘traditional’ unbridled sexual assault.
However, in Leather, in addition to rape and police and NF violence we have bullying in the workplace, ear-piercing, accidental injury, and of course consensual S & M, which seems to me, in its performative aspects at least, a perhaps benign reflection of societies characterised by an elevation of violence and coercive behaviour.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think you find S & M in pacific or matriarchal cultures. Unless of course you include initiation rituals.
For me and Matthew Hodson, who played the lead characters in the first production, it was an extraordinarily intense, fraught experience. Matthew was dealing with his own memories of sexual assault. Twice raped but never told anyone in the company about it at the time. Looking back, it seems extraordinarily brave of him to undertake Gordon under the circumstances.
I was channelling the original events which spurred the play, as well as dealing with issues of personal body image. There were two nude scenes, and although I had done nude scenes before, these were different. I was now in my early 40s, with a body that had not been carefully tended. I was up against a boy nearly twenty years younger who had been a cover model for Vulcan, and whom it was difficult not to respond to sexually.
‘Up against’? Of course, it isn’t and shouldn’t be a competition, but it was always clear who would attract the audience’s attention without his clothes. I was so preoccupied with my own inferiority complexes, conflicts and struggles with a convoluted and huge character, that to my eternal shame, I had no time to consider what Matthew was going through.
Later I wrote the backstage story of Leather, from my point of view, in Eric’s ‘Leather’ Appendage. It was a comedy.
So, Leather is not an easy play to introduce. It’s a bit of a potpourri, and I’m still not sure what, if anything, it signifies. Make of it what you will. Perhaps you can tell me what it all means.
Peter Scott-Presland (June 2021)
All work is copyright of Peter Scott‐Presland. Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email firstname.lastname@example.org
Read the Script
The performance of Leather and the author's introduction to it, are both on the Scenesaver website with subtitles. If you would like to see it with subtitles you will need to register with Scenesaver.
Written by Eric Presland
Directed by Ian Lucas
Philip Stewart - Eric Presland
Gordon Bainbridge - Joshua Matthews
Terry - Toby Collins
Clive Keith Bursnall
Man on the Heath - Toby Collins
Hugo - Keith Bursnall
Buckley - Keith Bursnall
Shaw - Toby Collins
With the voices of Brian O’Flynn and Martin Nee
Company Manager - Nicole Banford
Set - Keith Bursnall
Lighting - Richard Desmond
Posters and leaflets - Keith Bursnall
Photos - Juanito Whadwami
Printing - Wernham Printers
Sound Recording - Breakaway Studio
Leather gear and accessories - Expectations
With thanks to Julian Lattore, Bryan Derbyshire, The Block, Steven Wrigley and the Brite Lites Crew, Bob Webber, Neti Neti Theatre Co, and the Greater London Citizens Advice Bureaux Service.
In the midst of Eric Presland’s new play, Leather, which takes an open and honest look at homosexuality, a loudspeaker relays a radio discussion on the subject. “For heaven’s sake, we all know such things exist, but do we need to parade them?”
This is a question one may well ask about Leather, because for all the play’s merits. One might well think its nudity quite superfluous to its elusive message, though its author is undoubtedly a talented writer.
In an author’s note, Presland suggests that “it’s not about S&M. It’s about pain and loss, fear and violence.” He says he has attempted “to shine a light into some very dark corners of experience.”
This he does, but gays do not come well out of this play. They are portrayed as promiscuous, selfish, seeking merely the pleasures of the flesh and to that purpose indulge in unusual sexual practices. Bondage and pain-inflicting paraphernalia are shown to be an important part of some people’s lives. Rape is also depicted as a not-uncommon occurrence amongst the gay community.
On the positive side, Leather allows us a glimpse of a vulnerable social group, which retains a sense of humour despite being persecuted by the establishment and some extremist sectors of society. The cast of four give strong, convincing performances.
A special mention goes to a delightfully funny Keith Bursnall who plays Phil’s barrister friend Clive and doubles up as a salesman in a sex shop called Expectations. Ian Lucas confidently steers the proceedings of a play with the power to shock, inform and excite.
Lujbima Woods, What’s On (28 September 1990)
To the Editor, FF Magazine
I would like to warn your readers about the new and long-awaited play by Eric Presland entitled Leather. Don’t go.
Scot Iann, Hoxton
Enough of this. What has the talented Mr Presland done to deserve such a letter? – Ed
“This play,” says the author, “shouldn’t be called Leather because it’s not about S/M. It’s about pain and loss, fear and violence.”
Actually, it’s about leather. More specifically, it attempts to tackle the question: “What makes otherwise sane intelligent caring people want to dress up in bits of dead cow (quote) and go and be horrid to one another.” Not surprisingly, it fails to find a simple answer.
The play is (I think) fairly autobiographical and concerns the author’s own attempts to come to terms with the leather scene. Like most of us ‘nice’, politically right-on (ish) caring sharing middle class intellectual faggots, he obviously finds this more than a bit of a poser.
Viewed from this perspective, the leather scene is (a) alien, (b) frightening, (c) probably a macho power trip, (d) politically very suspect ANYWAY, and (e) a real turn-on. Why on earth do people find this sort of thing attractive? More to the point, why on earth do I find it attractive?
Investigation of this theme leads the play to explore a lot of areas, including the difficulty of relationships between older and younger gays, the problem of violence directed against gays, the other problem of wanting to internalise and somehow tame that violence, what happens to gay friendship when sex gets in the way, the problem of gay rape (a bit much of this perhaps, it doesn’t happen that much, thanks-be-to-God) and more.
Indeed, one criticism is that it attempts to tackle too much of gay experience in one show. But it all manages to revolve round the central image of the play; the beautiful, hurt young man in full leather.
Dramatically, the play is very well constructed – MUCH better in this respect than other things I’ve seen by Eric Presland – and very well performed.
Eric himself and Joshua Matthews as the two protagonists are excellent in very demanding roles, with Matthews making Gordon both believable and sympathetic; it would be possible to make him a right little shit-bag if the part was played differently. Eric plays – well, someone-rather-Eric-like – very nicely.
I found the play interesting, moving and erotic – not necessarily in the places I was supposed to find erotic, would have expected to find erotic, or felt at ALL comfortable about finding erotic. I can honestly claim that the show taught me a bit more about myself as a gay man, and you can’t say fairer than that.
David Campion, RelayNet
Eric Presland’s ‘revenge comedy’ contains a set of potentially fascinating ideas on pain, love and suffering, and boldly tackles issues such as gay rape and the politics of S&M. Middle-aged Phil helps his lover over the trauma of rape, only to be left cold when Gordon seeks the belt-wielding hands of Terry.
The mental suffering of Phil is shown in sharp contrast to the physical hurts exacted in sado-masochistic sex, both consensual and forced, against a background of society’s brutality to gays. But the grist of the play, about where you draw the line, and the insidious power of the victim, is swathed in clouds of clumsy exposition.
The play is overwritten into dullness; never more so than in the character of Phil, whose constant well-meaning whinging becomes deeply irritating. It should be gripping but it’s painfully tedious.
Nick Curtis, Time Out (10 October 1990)
This squalid little play purports to offer insights into the world of gay S&M and the violence and fear of violence which, Presland alleges, surrounds homosexual men. A more interesting insight into the world of men who fetishise the skins of dead cows could probably be gained from an evening in the nearby Coleherne pub, where the acting is almost certainly of a higher standard.
These are characters who live in the gay ghetto, allusions to gay publications and shops abound, and the play is trapped in a ghetto mentality. When the ‘straight’ world gets a look-in, it is in the form of hostile police, Nazi skinheads, bigoted employers and political pressure groups.
Apart from grossly overwritten S&M sex scenes (do people really talk about reaching “the heart of darkness” when they are fist-fucking?) the play’s style is ploddingly naturalistic. Not so much kitchen sink as toilet-bowl drama. Pull the chain, somebody!
Paul Davies, London Evening Standard
Reviews of 2021 Zoom Performance:
Introduction: The Capital Gay 'exposé' of male rape appeared as a two-page, two-issue special feature following a story about a rape cabaret for Halloween Night 1981 at Heaven.
Peter was interviewed for the special feature and there were several more than those used. His own story is in Capital Gay (issue 20 November 1981, left hand page). You can compare it with the text of Leather.