Trafalgar Studios 2, London – until 1 August 2015
Written by William M Hoffman
Directed by Andrew Keates
Guest reviewer: Lucy Middleton
As one sits in the Trafalgar Studios waiting for Andrew Keates’ production of As Is to begin, there is an awareness of a gentle backdrop of conversation that eventually distils into individuals speaking of when they learned of their AIDS diagnosis. Gradually it builds, with statistics about the numbers of people dying or infected beginning to get louder. Perhaps the most uncomfortable soundbites are the (1981) news stories declaiming in loud American voices the menace of “The Gay Plague” along with vox pop interviews of members of the public saying how “they only have themselves to blame”.
It is two years since Keates first brought William M Hoffman’s 1985 play to London’s Finborough Theatre, and it has grown in impact. The set of the play is sparse but effective as a hospital space / New York loft complete with prerequisite red drainage pipes suspended from the ceiling. Strange, multi-coloured light boxes hang on the walls. But perhaps most interesting is the use of the blackboard paint on the three other walls with names written in chalk. The audience is invited to write the names of AIDS victims known to them with the chalk provided.
Essentially, As Is is a love story. Rich (played excellently by Steven Webb) and Saul (David Poynor) are a couple. They have lived and loved together for a long time. Saul is deeply happy and contented. He sees the relationship as having structure and stability. He describes it as being “Something to fall back on when life throws you a curved ball”. But Rich is stagnating. A writer “who can’t”, but who finds a muse in Chet (Giles Cooper) who is all muscle and California Dreaming. Rich is leaving Saul to live with Chet. The only item from their life together he wants is the Barcelona chair. Then Rich discovers he has AIDS.
Suddenly the whole cast are on stage declaiming how Rich’s diagnosis has affected them. His caterer mother’s company loses contracts, his sister’s new hotshot boyfriend won’t meet the family for fear and embarrassment, whilst his brother has a wife who forbids him to have any contact with Rich for fear of the health of their children. All around is ignorance, panic and a crescendo of voices to deliver the line “What are my chances?”.
Rich is taken back by Saul (David Poynor) whose tenderness and real love of Rich is incredibly moving. Saul is prepared to stand by his man even though he may be gambling his own life. Rich gradually comes to realise the power of true love.
The issue of sex crops up now and then as you would expect. Some of the content is quite explicit but not gratuitous, with both Bevan Celestine and Russell Morton simmering with sexuality in leather and a hilarious scene where Rich and Saul discuss sex and how much they miss it.
Part public health information and part entertainment, As Is never preaches, rather it delivers. This is a laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud production which explores what it is like to be outside of society, not only as an HIV+ individual, but also as a human being facing his or her own mortality. Amidst hilarious one-liners, we are reminded that none of us know what lies ahead of us. We must not just enjoy life, we must also protect ourselves and our health.
In publicly declaring his own HIV+ diagnosis Keates has made a personal stand that it as inspirational today as Hoffman’s prose was decades ago. The emotional and physical importance of As Is demands that it be seen.
Runs until 1st August 2015
Guest reviewer: Lucy Middleton