When researching for my part in The Tell-Tale Heart
, my director Giorgio Spiegelfeld was clear he wanted to draw comparisons between Poe’s gothic tale and the darker recesses of today’s gay male populous.
We didn’t want it to be a play about chem sex - because it’s not, but a piece about what happens next. The paranoia, the insomnia, the self-perpetuated layers of surveillance (apparently some petty dealers and chem sex connoisseurs rig their flats up with cameras now), and the terrifying fusion of fact and fiction as you sit in your flat alone, your brain still stewing itself into a casserole of crazy.
My character in The Tell-Tale Heart
has a history of drug use and sex parties, but you’re seeing someone who has been out and lost it - and now he is back home alone. It is an illustration of that aftermath and the neurosis. He starts talking to someone on camera but you don’t know who - or whether anyone is there at all. And then a murderous confession begins to unfold.
The set is amazing, a naturalistic recreation of one such character's home, created by the fantastic set designer Tony Hornecker (The Pale Blue Door, Mad About The Boy
), and with very limited seating the audience join me in this hoarder’s lair – built especially for the two week run in the basement of my pub The Glory.
When you see drug addicts, on the streets and public transport – or perhaps even personal friends and contacts, these people can appear to be functioning and coping, but behind closed doors there’s often a broken person who in the privacy of their own home will allow themselves to unravel.
The audience see me undergoing a scary personal routine of repetition, mundanity and self-torture. My character resides within a cardboard kingdom propped up by pornography and imaginary voices. My friend the DJ Hannah Holland (‘Ghetto’, ‘Batty Bass’) has created a Berghain-inspired soundscape for the play, which sound technician Lex Kosanke has latticed with sounds - imaginary and real - which my character hears.
For this performance I’ve drawn upon my own experience of partying for twenty years and then ending up in hospital for five weeks. I think the media have fetishised "chem sex" and in doing so have got it quite wrong.
Gay guys taking drugs and having sex is nothing new. In a way, I was lucky enough to hit rock bottom, because when you do that at least you can rebuild. But it changes you. The press focuses on the big things – serious addiction, an untimely death perhaps or someone losing the mortgage on their flat. But partying for years like I did - or like people do now - will change you.
When I look at mates my age, the ones who were taking a lot of drugs in the 90s, it’s created a very generation-specific way of being. We can be apathetic and maybe not as politically active as we should be.
I know I've missed opportunities and maybe not made the most of ones that I have had - and so sometimes I feel like I've had a lot of catching up to do - and I can tell you now, there is no better beauty treatment out there than coming off drugs - it works wonders!
But the drugs gay men are taking today can be nasty. I’ve seen people I know who have got into Meph and G lose it very quickly, and more sharply, than with previous kinds of drug.
Recently the media have portrayed "chem sex" as a cool thing to do for gay men, as essential as having a beard or going to the gym twice a week, another tick box on the gay man's quest for coolness, but this isn't the reality.
There’s truth behind that image, but there are also a lot of “normal” people who lead bizarre, harrowing and dangerous lives behind closed doors - as a result of subscribing to this false escapist fantasy.
That’s what Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic horror story The Tell-Tale Heart
is about, and East London hasn’t changed. Poe went to school in Stoke Newington two hundred years ago. The Glory is a few hundred yards down the road. Are our respective times that different? No. East London is still stuffed with strange, paranoid and almost paranormal people.
The paranoia is a hard-hitting and very long-term effect of serious drug use. Gays in London and all cities suffer enough self-conscious anxiety and fear as it is, bolstering their egos with bomber jackets and hiding their lower middle class childhoods behind mesh vests.
If sex parties and these new internet-bought legal highs are not just a party piece, but a way of defining themselves - then I wonder what their generation will be like in ten years?
For us, "sex on drugs", as we called it in the 90s, was a fun and occasional by-product of going out clubbing. When it didn’t happen I would end up a bit tipsy trying to avoid my flat mates in a sauna. Obviously people have chem sex because it is extremely exciting, the sex is like porn and it can be a wild adventure - but it also feels like a steeper slope.
On a much darker note - the reality is that going straight from your home to someone else who is high and horny, eclipsing the night out in between, can result in over-drugging, violence, rape and in extreme circumstances murder - as has been reported recently. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 tale is not so far from today's truth...
Jonny Woo stars in The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe at The Glory in Haggerston, opening on Monday January 25 for two weeks only.
The show plays from Monday to Friday at 8pm, on the weeks commencing January 25 and February 1, with very limited seating due to immersive installation.