A Conversation With… Rob Ward and John Askew of Gypsy Queen

Sitting in the bar of Assembly George Square, Rob Ward advises me of the evolution of Gypsy Queen. He wrote it over two years ago, and since then has performed it all over the UK. Each time they perform, it evolves in some way – though it’s no work in progress. It’s a super slick, emotional traverse into the world of minorities in sport. Ward and Askew performed a preview mini tour late 2016, then a UK tour last spring and last year, developing and tweaking the material until last year at the Fringe, where the script settled to what it is now.

At the heart of it, it’s a love story

The piece, which is both a brutal and tender love story of a boxer who meets a bare knuckle fighter, was born from the homophobia exhibited by infamous homophobic boxer Tyson Fury. John Askew, who plays Dane the Pain, feels that this conversation is still hugely politically important and so relevant, resonating as much this year as it did before. Ward added that only last year, the fight between McGregor and Mayweather featured a big publicised face off including major homophobia. I asked if there were any openly gay boxers, and Ward shared that there was currently only Orlando Cruise who is both out and performing at a high level.

In terms of their backgrounds, Askew had done a bit of boxing when he was younger but got fed up getting beat up. The two are clearly in peak physical condition, and Ward similarly hails from a very sporty background – growing up with a huge emphasis on sport. Ward shares that he'd undertaken boxing training to get ready for the show, having enjoyed boxing for the inherent theatricality of it.

I asked about the power skipping scene incorporated by Askew, and having forayed into the world of power skipping myself, it is no easy feat! Askew was initially unsure if this scene was going to be possible with the low ceilings of the Assembly venue they perform in, and as a back up had thought they could incorporate shadow boxing or press ups if it didn’t work out. But it did work out, and quite spectacularly! Ward shared that with the elements of sport and movement within the piece, he wanted to create a sense of realism, with an awareness that the audience want to see some of the sport. I agreed that the slow mo boxing in particular worked well, and Ward added that this had been introduced by Askew, introduced as co-star this year which has kept the material fresh. In particular with the beauty of movement, Askew was able to contribute his background in physical movement, and was pleased that Ward was keen to include this. The chemistry between the two on stage is palpable, and Ward expressed that the new ideas contributed by Askew keeps him on his toes. This is now his 115th performance, and he was happy to integrate new ideas as it avoids the potential slump of becoming too comfortable.

The sex scene in the performance was stunningly tender and emotional, and Askew said that they had discussed how this would look. It oozes tenderness and romance, which Ward shared was a big motivation for him. He wanted to say more about gay men and relationships, as they tend to be painted as bleak in theatre and film and he wanted people to see the romance. Gay men tend to be very sexualised in the media. Askew adds that at the heart of it, it’s a love story. Ward continued that LGBTQI in sports is something he’s very passionate about, and it’s a political with a capital P issue. He felt that if you introduce a tender human story, people can connect with that more and then it follows that actually, the hatred and homophobia is not good. Considering the current sporting climate, you can count on one hand the number of openly gay, active competing sports men. And even then, it tends to be diving and more artistic sports – very rarely the team sports.

I had a curiosity about what the feedback had been from the sporting community, and Ward advised that he had done some previews with Leap Sports Scotland, who support the inclusion of LGBTI people in sports and have always been supportive of the show. Ward celebrates other small successes, like last year when some Irish lads came along to the play thinking it was just a boxing play. When they left, the front of house staff overheard them say they ‘weren’t expecting that, it was good though’. And those small steps, those little bits of awareness, are what changes attitudes and cultures. Ward shared his plans of aiming to perform it in boxing gyms around the country. I advised that there is a heavy population of lesbians in boxing gyms across the UK so they have many allies on side already.

And from the travelling community, I was curious as to any feedback. Ward revealed that they had been approached in London during three and a half weeks at Queer Season, at Kingshead Theatre in Islington. There, they had a traveller come along to see the show. A group of gay men who didn’t feel that they fit into the scene, but who wanted to go out and socialise with other gay men, had this organisation who would organise for their members to do events. And as one of the events they brought about twenty of them along – one of whom was a traveller. He was a massive fan of the show, and then came on tour with them for a bit. I asked what his feeling had been, and Ward shared that he had said he connected a lot, which was lovely for him as he’d done as much research as he could. I asked what this research was, with an awareness that the travelling community can at times be very insular. Ward had visited an Irish heritage centre in Manchester, and would love to tie them in somehow to a performance. Going forward, he is considering if they can bring a group of gay travellers or members who, like George in the play, don’t live in vans. And the traveller who toured with them shared that despite living statically in a house, he is still heavily tied to the travelling culture and will be forever. Meeting Ward opened the eyes of this man, and he has since wrote an article about how Tyson Fury does not speak for all traveller men.

Ward enjoys football, and as a teen, homophobia in the stands in football was common. In his head, at the age of 14, he felt like he may fancy men but the cultural climate meant there was absolutely no way that was happening with how he grew up and the world he was living in. When he did eventually come out, he had to hide that sporting part of himself from the gay community so a big part of what they want to do is bring those worlds together and reassure young people coming out that we can co-exist.

We discussed the homophobia experienced by Michael Sam, the openly gay NFL player. Ward shared that he is a big NFL fan and does a podcast. Within 2 years of coming out, at the height of his sporting success, he retired citing mental health issues. Ward believes the real issue was being a gay man in the locker room. Locker room banter is so toxic - you don’t want to be ‘other' when you’re trying not to stand out. Sport is all about conforming - and Sam was a quarter back who stuck his neck out and tried to be a bit different in the world of sport which was not ready for this.

There was a big religious element to the performance, with George fearing how this would impact his faith, and the appearance of his mother who is deeply Catholic. Ward is not religious now, however he grew up religious. He feels like even organised religion is moving forward on things like this. Askew is a member of the Church of England, and one of his good friends is now in the priesthood as an openly gay man with C of E which is a great mark of progress. Ward also noted that even the Pope has softened his messages about LGBT people.

I was interested in how Askew felt about performing his co-star’s writing, and how their relationship came about. Askew shared that he was recommended to Rob by a friend he'd been on tour with, and he wrote to him and said the idea sounded great, and that he would love to see the script. Askew beamed that a few pages in, he was buzzing. Immediately he felt that he had to go and read for this; he wanted to tell this story. In terms of joining something already set up, he feels that Ward and Director Adam Zane were very welcoming, and they’re very open to his ideas. Askew felt that coming in as a new cast member, he didn’t want to just copy and paste what someone else had done as everyone brings something unique. He shared that the first couple of times he performed the role, he’d ad lib something and give Ward the sideeye - 'am i getting away with it?' In short, they’re both looking to tell the truth of the story and anything that adds to that is positive.

Throughout the performance, they skilfully utilise the set and props to create a real sense of atmosphere and presence, and in playing several different character roles, their usage of props were seamless. I was interested in how this came about. Ward felt that it was through lots of rehearsal that this evolved. Scene changes can be tricky, and risk losing the audience. So instead of hiding the scene changes from the audience, they have utilised slick and fluid movement and physicality, allowing the metaphorical fourth wall to experience the transitions. Ward mused that this aspect required more rehearsal than some of the actual scenes.

This is the second time the play has appeared at the Fringe; and the first time for Askew performing this show in Edinburgh. Askew shares that it’s not his first performance in Edinburgh though; he’s done a few previously and then took a few years off to get over the last one. It can be tough, he shares - he was here in 2014 with a show called Travesty. It went down well and he felt like when he came back, it had to be with something that was really important. Askew loves Edinburgh, enthusing that it’s an amazing place. In Edinburgh, he enthuses, things can be brilliant and you can see amazing performances. There’s also a lot to test you and annoy you, and it can be difficult. Askew feels that if you can come and leave and still be a little bit sane, it’s a success. The environment of not having a long time to plan being a factor - he loves the atmosphere of the theatre, but infamously at the Fringe you get fifteen mins to set up after the previous show. The up side is that you get to reach people that wouldn’t normally go to a theatre. Askew is passionate about that as an actor, reaching people who think that theatre is not for them. As long as companies can still afford to come here, the audiences will keep coming and it’s important they do and believe in it in that way. And Askew feels that it’s important that the Fringe remembers that it should be open to all, not going down the corporate route where people who are working class can't afford to go.

We discussed the profile of theatre goers, and the barriers. Askew shares that his entire family were miners. If he’d been born in the 70s, he’d have been a miner too. His mum and dad still live in that town, and he confides that his family are unfamiliar with being in a theatre, and he can understand that. These buildings are not what these people are used to. It’s a funny world, just gone a bit mad. Ward adds that they did a miners welfare recently, a South Wales tour. It reminded them that this is the kind of stuff they want to be doing more of, going out to places for people that might never see this. if there were just one or two gay people in their audience, that would be worth it as they may never have seen this. Visibility, role models. people bemoan identity politics – but we have to remind young people that this is okay. That it can be beautiful. Askew is keen to portray a message that says to these communities that art is for them too. These buildings are quite exclusive, and people think it’s not for them, and they feel they may not get it. But this is accessible to them, it’s not flowery, this is what it is. You don’t have to feel like you’re excluded from art because you’re working class – you can have this in your life.

Ward has some dialogue for the audience at the end of his show, a call to arms on inclusivity and taking action. Ward shares that he can then see the audience reaction to the performance. A lot of fringe goers are straight, middle class people and to see them moved, moves them. Despite the LGBTI theme, Ward, Askew and Zane want it to reach out to people who aren’t LGBTI also. Askew adds that a lot of the time, people see shows they relate to. But then it’s like finding yourself preaching to the choir a bit. So it’s nice to reach out and have the conversation with different people.