A new play opening in London later this month will examine one of the most scandalous incidents in 20th century British theatre.

In 1953 acclaimed classical actor John Gielgud, who had recently been knighted by the Queen, was prosecuted for persistently importuning for immoral purposes, more commonly known as cottaging.

He was devastated by the attendant publicity and feared his career was over, but he was greeted with a standing ovation the next time he appeared on stage.

Now Evening Standard theatre reviewer Nicholas de Jongh has written a new play exploring how the incident may have played a role in changing public attitudes about homosexuality.

Plague Over England runs from 27th February to 22nd March at the Finborough Theatre in west London.

Mr de Jongh’s books include Not in Front of the Audience, a history of homosexuality on stage and Politics, Pruderies and Perversions a history of theatre censorship in Britain.

“The new play shows how Gielgud’s arrest played a small but distinct part in the battle to make homosexuality legal,” said a spokesperson.

“It captures the spirit of Britain in the early 1950s when judges, politicians and the national press were describing homosexuality as a cancer, an epidemic and a threat to national life.

“It is an extraordinary insight into the dramatic changes in social attitudes to gay life in the last fifty years.”

The 1950s are remembered as a period when anti-gay sentiments were strong.

The Churchill government is alleged to have started a gay witch-hunt after the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, both gay, defected to the Soviet Union.

Sir John Gielgud, who died in 2000 at the age of 96, is generally regarded as the finest stage actor of the 20th century.

While he never hid his homosexuality, he did not discuss it publicly.

He publicly acknowledged his longtime lover Martin Hensler in 1988.

Jasper Britton plays John Gielgud, Nichola McAuliffe will play Sybil Thorndike, the actress with whom Gielgud was poised to appear in the West End, while Simon Dutton portrays the famed producer Binkie Beaumont.

Plague Over England is directed by Tamara Harvey.

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