Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Theatre

Olympian Matthew Mitcham on ‘safe and respectful’ approach to gay sex scenes in Strangers in Between

Exclusive: The first openly gay athlete to win an Olympic Gold Medal talks about acting, Strangers in Between, and its sex scenes.

By Alastair James

Strangers in Between
Alex Ansdell and Matthew Mitcham for Strangers in Between (Image: Paul de Dona)

Former Australian Olympic diver, Matthew Mitcham, is making his UK stage debut in the London revival of the play Strangers in Between.

Tom Murphy’s play, which originally debuted in 2005 in Sydney before arriving in the UK in 2016, follows Shane (Alex Ansdell) who flees his family and rural small town in Australia for the bright lights of Sydney.

Along the way, he encounters Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown) an older gay man, and Will (Matthew Mitcham). Mitcham also doubles as Shane’s brother, Ben.

Attitude spoke exclusively to the former diver – the first openly gay athlete to win an Olympic Gold Medal – about acting, the play, and its sex scenes.

Was acting something that you always wanted to do or something you discovered after you stopped diving?

I’ve always loved the arts. I play the ukulele and sing and I was touring cabaret shows around Australia for five years before coming to the UK. So, I’ve done little bits and pieces in TV and independent films, that sort of stuff. This is the first straight play that I’ve done.

Why this particular play?

I know the work of Tommy Murphy. The script for this show is so funny. It’s absolutely hilarious, one of the funniest things I’ve read in such a long time. I’m still laughing at the jokes after having rehearsed it and done the show for the last three weeks. And I know all the references because I spent 12 years around King’s Cross [Sydney] where it’s set. I first moved to Sydney in 2006 which is around the time that the play is set. So, I know the people, I know the places, I know the references. And I know people like the people in the script. I could have been one of the people in the script. I’ve got a very dear friend who is like Peter, the older, eccentric, gay man. It hits very close to home.

Matthew Mitcham and Alex Ansdell for Strangers in Between
Matthew Mitcham and Alex Ansdell for Strangers in Between (Image: Paul de Dona)

The play debuted back in 2005. How do you think it’s still relevant to a gay audience today?

Everything is still completely relevant. The only thing that’s changed in the world is that we have apps now. But everything else is exactly the same. It’s about a young queer kid who escapes his very rural hometown and makes the pilgrimage to the big city where all the gays are – that’s a tale as old as time that’s still happening today. Escaping his family which is homophobic and that’s still happening all the time. And it’s about a kid who is just woefully unprepared to handle life on life’s terms. We’ve all been that kid. It’s about navigating adult relationships in the world for the first time, which is all of our stories, I guess.

Matthew Mitcham and Alex Ansdell for Strangers in Between
Alex Ansdell and Matthew Mitcham for Strangers in Between (Image: Paul de Dona)

Do you resonate a lot with the character of Shane?

Yeah, I’ve been Shane. If I hadn’t had diving, I could have been Will. And I suspect in a few years, I will be Peter, who takes all the little gay ducklings under his wing. But yes, I certainly felt an affinity with Shane making that same pilgrimage when I was 18 and [I] found myself in the party scene and made relationships and friendships with people who probably weren’t that helpful for me. And then and also made some incredibly wonderful, rich relationships that I still have to this day.

What do you think the play says about gay relationships and the different kinds of relationships that gay men have with each other?

It really tells it as it is. Gay relationships come in all sorts of forms, they’ve only just focused on two of them. The overarching story that it tells about relationships is that we find our chosen family. We choose our family with the people that we choose to have in our lives, and they do become family. And they often become out surrogate families, when our actual families don’t love us and accept us for exactly who we are, which is what a family ought to do.

Matthew Mitcham and Alex Ansdell for Strangers in Between
Alex Ansdell and Matthew Mitcham for Strangers in Between (Image: Paul de Dona)

What was it like dealing with the intimate moments of the play?

The script is very sexy. I got quite excited when I was reading through the sex scenes. Some of it is endearing, some of it is funny, and some of it is awkward. And that’s exactly what sex is, isn’t it? It’s really beautiful. When you actually act it out in real life, it’s not quite as erotic as what my fantasy had led me to believe that it would be because [as actors] we’ve all got a duty of care and responsibility. We do a body check before every show just to say what’s okay to touch and what’s not okay to touch. We’re just very respectful of each other and we’re very mindful of boundaries and we’re very mindful of appropriateness. What we show to the audience is very sexy but what we’re doing as actors is very safe and respectful.

Matthew Mitcham and Alex Ansdell for Strangers in Between
Strangers in Between starring Alex Ansdell and Matthew Mitcham (Image: Paul de Dona)

Do you feel like it’s an accurate portrayal of what gay sex can be like?

Absolutely, it is. Particularly for someone who’s a young boy who’s having sex for the first time. It’s so real and so relatable, the entire show. That’s one of the things that I love about it. We’ve all been that queer kid, we’ve all had sex for the first time, we’ve all fallen in love for the first time with someone who’s emotionally unavailable. We’ve been through that heartbreak, we’ve been through the pining, we’ve been through the probably slightly obsessive embarrassing behaviour around that and we’ve all been there, we’ve all done it, we all remember exactly how it feels. And this play just reminds us of that painful awkwardness of it all. The play is so good.

Strangers in Between is playing at the Golden Goose Theatre until 7 October. Book tickets here.