LONDON — In 1988, the British Parliament passed a law that banned schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” “Section 28,” as the notorious clause was known, effectively outlawed positive depictions of same-sex relationships in British classrooms.
“It now seems utterly barbaric that anyone could pass legislation against telling children they’re as good as other children,” said Matt Jones, a British television writer, producer and now theatermaker, who was in college at the time.
Since then, LGBT rights have advanced significantly in Britain. “Section 28” was repealed in 2000. In 2005, gay and lesbian couples were allowed to adopt in England and Wales. And in 2013, same-sex marriage became legal.
A lot has changed. Yet there is little art dealing with these new possibilities. On the London stage, you are still much more likely to see a show about the AIDS epidemic (“Angels in America”) or its legacy (Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance”) than you are to see one dealing with same-sex marriage or parenting. But this month, there are inventive new productions about both: “Leave to Remain,” about two men who tie the knot, and “No Kids,” about a gay couple adopting a baby.
However, neither of them unquestioningly celebrate admission to the clubs of marriage and parenthood. Instead, like several recent American productions, they look critically at these ancient institutions.
In 2013, Jones said, Kele Okereke, the singer of British rock band Bloc Party, told him “he wanted to tell a story about gay marriage, where one of the people getting married isn’t sure.”
“It’s not the sort of story about gay men you ever see,” added Okereke, in a joint interview with Jones.
“Leave to Remain,” running at the Lyric Hammersmith theater through Saturday, is the result of their collaboration. Jones and Okereke spent years unsure how best to tell the story, they said. They talked about a television show or a graphic novel before they settled on a musical.
The play follows the story of Obi and Alex, a British-American gay couple who decide to marry just 10 months into their relationship after Alex’s work visa expires. Short, spiky and dominated by exotic, heavily treated guitar lines played by a single live musician who prowls the stage, “Leave to Remain” is essentially ambivalent about marriage. It is clear that Obi and Alex are not ready to tie the knot, but it is their only way to stay together.
George Mann and Nir Paldi, leaders of the British physical theater company Ad Infinitum, said they felt ready for marriage after 13 years together. They wed last year, and had recently been deliberating whether they should adopt a child, they said in a joint Skype interview. They wanted to make a show about gay adoption and the ethics of parenthood: “We thought maybe we should do a show because it’s important somebody actually starts talking about it,” said Mann.
“No Kids,” playing at the Battersea Arts Centre through Feb. 23, is an entertainingly exaggerated staging of Paldi and Mann’s conversations about adoption and their research into the subject, which involved speaking to adoption agencies, environmental experts and same-sex parents, they said.
It is a theatricalized debate between the two that works their fears and worries into a series of absurdist fantasy sequences. Would their child be bullied for having two dads? Would their child bully them? Irrespective of sexuality, is it ethical to bring a child into the world in an era of global warming? “No Kids” turns a doubting eye on parenthood, just as “Leave to Remain” does with marriage.
Both shows make the case that equal rights do not mean the same experience.
Jones said he believed it was a mistake to believe that same-sex marriage and straight marriage were the same. There was a different dynamic between two men or two women than between a man and a woman, he said. Family dynamics were also likely to be different, he added.
Weddings, he said, could force gay and lesbian people into traumatic reckonings with their families. In “Leave to Remain” Alex and Obi are both out of the closet, but have never really talked about it with their distant parents. The wedding forces their parents to publicly acknowledge their sons’ sexualities.
“No Kids” shows that the arduous bureaucratic process of adoption can bring about a level of self-reflection — and self-doubt — for same-sex couples that heterosexual couples who conceive naturally may simply never experience.
Few heterosexual couples have to prove their fitness as parents; Mann and Paldi said that the need to do this magnified their pre-existing doubts. “Just because we’ve got the right to have children, does it mean we should?” said Paldi.
The idea that parenthood and marriage are rights everybody should have, but not everybody might want to have is the crux of both shows.
Neither Jones nor Okereke is married, and they said the process of making “Leave to Remain” had not persuaded either of them they would like to be. Jones said he used to be opposed to the idea when he was younger, believing that gay culture should not simply strive to copy straight culture.
But, he said, he has changed his mind after seeing how mainstream society had accepted married gay couples. Okereke and his partner have a daughter (born via a surrogate), and he said he was surprised at how their families had accepted her into their lives. But, he added, he was still unsure about marriage. Most of the heterosexual marriages he knew had ended in divorce, he said.
By contrast, Mann said making “No Kids” led him and Paldi to make a decision about adoption. “What really struck me is the number of children all over the world who don’t have parents,” he said. “If we can provide a home to a child, that would be a good thing.”
Making this show has persuaded them they would like a child. In “No Kids” they have given parenthood a trial by theater — and they have decided they want in.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.