Perhaps it is because of the multi-show venue, or just the financial realities of bringing any production to the Edinburgh Fringe nowadays, but Peter Darney’s production of Charles Gershman’s Free & Proud is a stripped down affair. Two actors: Faaiz Mbelizi and Michael Gilbert. Two chairs which they bring onto an otherwise empty dark stage. The only theatrical support comes from Nicola Chang’s soundscape and Sherry Coenen’s subtle lighting design. Our attention is, necessarily, sharply focused.
What undoubtedly adds flavour and subtle colour to the mix is that it happens to be a marriage between two gay men
Which is just as well; Free & Proud is a deceptively concentrated emotional tour-de-force, exploring, in a mixture of almost interacting flashbacks, the story of a failing marriage. In so many respects it is a universal story, but what undoubtedly adds flavour and subtle colour to the mix is that it happens to be a marriage between two gay men: Nigerian physicist Hakeem and American data analyst Jeremy. So we see them meet, fall in love, marry, then begin to lose what was special between them when the underlying differences between them begin to grow. So far, so predictable. And yet...
A central metaphor referred to throughout Free & Proud is of a dot moving on a line between two points; the inevitability of motion, and both the dangerous paralysis and potential for reinvention that comes from finding yourself stuck—whether this is in scientific exploration or a relationship. This can hardly be described as a play with excessive on-stage movement, but what there is (devised by Jess Tucker-Boyd) is narratively significant from the start, when we find the optimistic Hakeem on a bus chatting with an old woman while depressed Jeremy is stuck at home hating the spreadsheets on his computer.
Although a sharply observed and subtly directed examination of the birth and death of relationships – both romantic and family – what makes Free & Proud really memorable are Mbelizi’s and Gilbert’s heart-felt, nuanced performances. Given that what we have here are, for the most part, two occasionally interlinked monologues, the success of this production is rooted in both actors being capable of sharing and playing with the emotional balance between their characters, all to the betterment of the act in its entirety.