Alan Bowne’s Beirut is not your typical AIDS play. In fact, in the 1987 dystopian drama, the disease in question is never named. Why revive it now? What does it have to tell us about how society could and should respond in the face of other potential outbreaks? Robin Lefevre’s brand-new production, running at London’s Park Theatre from 12 June, stars Louisa Connolly-Burnham and Robert Rees whose love crosses the quarantine…
Torch has been quarantined in a dark, squalid room on the Lower East Side of New York City, which the locals refer to as “Beirut” after testing positive for a nameless disease. Torch passes the time alone, forbidden from contact with the outside world. His girlfriend, Blue, makes the dangerous journey across the quarantine line to be with him. Torch tries to keep her at arm’s length and they argue lovingly, jokingly, fearfully, bravely, and desperately about sex and death. All the while, Torch pleads with Blue to leave before his resistance fails….
In Alan Bowne’s love story, the fatal disease that consigned those who tested positive to the “Beirut” quarantine zone in near-future New York is never named, but it is clearly modelled on AIDS.
The play was first workshopped at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival outside San Francisco in August 1986, just four years after a spate of cases among gay men in Southern California first suggested that this newly identified immune system deficiency might be sexually transmitted and the Center for Disease Control first coined the name AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
By the time of Beirut’s Off-Broadway premiere in 1987, the number of reported AIDS cases in the United States exceeded 50,000 and the mortality rate was over 80% with Rock Hudson and Liberace amongst some of the earliest celebrity fatalities. Author Alan Bowne himself died from AIDS in 1989.
The spread of AIDS accelerated rapidly in the 1990s, as did the number of deaths. By 1997, almost 3.5 million people per year were being diagnosed with HIV globally. In this decade, higher-profile “AIDS plays” included Tony Kushner’s Angels in America trilogy (1991-1993), now being revived on Broadway care of our own National Theatre, and from a British perspective, Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg (1994).
“I can live without sex and feel dead or risk death and feel alive.”
Today, AIDS no longer needs to be a death sentence. In Western countries with ready access to antiretroviral therapies, life expectancy is near-normal.
Should we become complacent? Since it was first identified, some 30 million people have died from AIDS. This is less than half of the estimated 75 to 100 million who perished in just two years during the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. One of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, this pandemic wiped out three to five percent of the global population at that time. Still today, up to 500,000 people die in a typical flu season.
What might the next super-bug be and where might it appear? The Ebola virus, which continues to surface regularly in West Africa since 2013, is one of the most lethal, killing up to 90 percent of those infected. Other new diseases that have spawned outbreak scares in recent years have included SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome: Asia 2002), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, 2012), Zika (South America, 2015) and, closer to home, ‘mad cow disease’ BSE (1996).
Meanwhile, intractable infectious diseases including cholera, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis, meningitis and measles continue to claim millions of lives around the world every year.
A rising global population, expected to reach 11 billion by 2100 and increasingly in flight from conflicts and natural disasters, combined with a growing resistance to antibiotics presents new challenges to controlling outbreaks. Treatment of victims is not just a medical dilemma. As Bowne so forcefully asks in Beirut: when disease runs rife, how much should be sacrificed? How much freedom? How much dignity? How much pleasure? How much love?
Beirut runs from 12 June to 7 July 2018 at the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.45pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3.15pm. Tickets are priced £18 (concessions £16.50, previews £14.50). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!