Monday, July 6, 2015

'As Is' at Trafalgar Studios, 3rd July 2015

Morbidity hangs heavy in the basement of Trafalgar Studios. The black painted walls sport the chalked names those lost to our modern plague, HIV/AIDS. Snatches of news reports play out, tracking the progression of the virus in the popular consciousness. With the cast sitting on stage looking incredibly sullen it's all a bit oppressive. So thank god As Is opens with a joke.

Written by William M. Hoffman in 1985, As Is bills itself as 'the first AIDS play'. As Hoffman explains, he was working in New York theatre when rumours began of some mysterious new disease. Soon his friends and professional acquaintances began to die, healthy young men and women picked off in matter of months. As the death count rose, so did prejudice against sufferers; finding themselves disowned by friends and family, sacked from their jobs, mistreated by health workers and evicted from their homes. To counter this Hoffman wrote As Is, emphasises the humanity of those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

The central character is Rich (Steven Webb), an ambitious poet and runner. We meet him living the young metropolitan dream; he's beautiful, his talent is finally being recognised, he's in great shape and has a fulfilling sex life. Then his blood turns to shit and his fancy-free existence collapses around him. Interest in his work bottoms out, paying gigs dry up, medical bills begin to mount and his family makes excuses to avoid seeing him.

Things are bad, and they only get worse as the physical manifestations of the disease take their toll. Fortunately Rich has the unconditional support of his former lover Saul (David Poynor), who promises to stick with him no matter how bad things get. And things get pretty bad - by the final act he's confined to a hospital bed, his skin peppered with sarcomas and weakened to the point where he cannot walk across the room.

On some level, As Is is a modern horror story, the individual gradually consumed by a virus that has no concept of justice, love or mercy. But it's as much about basic humanity expressed in trying times - revealing the paradox that when life is at it's most miserable is when you find the most powerful connections. It's this that props up the straightforward message of As Is; victims of HIV/AIDS are human beings that deserve love.

The personal story of Rich is supported by expressionistic sequences that set out the bigger picture; synths pound out the speakers as two hilariously macho leather bikers square up with each other. Hooking their thumbs into their pockets they exchange rapidfire monosyllabic questions - each one playing a clearly defined, predetermined role. I have no idea what mid 80s New York gay culture was actually like, but this feels accurate. Similarly effective is a chorus of epithets directed at Rich, his family and friends talking over one another as they formulate their own reasons for avoiding him, all of which eventually coalesce into a paranoid communal yell: "Don't touch me!!"

These moments, in concert with subdued period costume, a malleable set and a cast all possessed of impressive chameleonic powers, go a long way towards creating a concrete sense of time, place and politics. In this regard it's an undoubted theatrical success.

However, the narrative skews a little too close to sentimentality for my taste. Only a stone cold psycho wouldn't agree with Hoffman's message, but the interpersonal fundamentals of the plot is 'yer standard weepie-of-the-week template. So we get the last minute family reconciliations, 11th hour renewals of hope and a couple of banal platitudes that're at odds with the rest of the play.

Maybe I'm just being a bit cynical, but considering how bang-on the rest of the production is, it's disappointing that we end on a note of cliché. Then again, I bear in mind that this play, when first performed, was genuinely groundbreaking. In 1985 the public needed to be straightforwardly instructed not to discriminate or dehumanise HIV/AIDS sufferers, and an easy-to-grasp story helps achieve that. But when seen in 2015 the dramatic seams are starting to fray a bit at the edges.

Still, no-one can deny the humanity on display. This is theatre fuelled by love, sadness and empathy, technically excellent and performatively impressive. It may not have pushed my buttons quite as much as I'd have liked, but judging by the tears, standing ovation and wild applause, buttons were indeed pushed.


As Is is at Trafalgar Studios until 1st August. Tickets here.

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