“We have grabbed this opportunity with both hands to make something original – not a film of a staged version of the play BUT a new hybrid production.” When COVID-19 ended hopes of a London season for new HIV drama Moment of Grace, writer Bren Gosling set about recreating it for the screen. Find out more in his fascinating interview…
Gosling’s play was due to run at the Tristan Bates Theatre in June and July. Together with director Nicky Allpress and producer Paul Coleman, he worked to create a unique theatre/film hybrid production made within the restrictions of lockdown. The result is a tale about one pandemic, created as the world struggles to come to grips with a new one.
Moment of Grace is set in 1987. Princess Diana’s landmark visit to a London AIDS ward has sparked world-wide interest, with camera crews and a televised interview. But AIDS remains taboo. Even being seen to work on this ward could cost you everything. To change public misconceptions, would you have risked it?
Told through the eyes of Jude, a nurse on the ward, Andrew, a patient, and Donnie, a fireman estranged from his son, this ground-breaking new play Moment of Grace tells how the Princess’s visit brought critical attention to AIDS awareness through empathy and acts of kindness. At a time when we are wary of coming in contact with each other, it is the story of the power of a handshake.
Lucy Walker Evans, Luke Dayhill and Andrew Paul star in the production, which was filmed during lockdown using a sanitised smartphone camera and basic kit couriered between performers.
Walker Evans reunites with director Allpress, who she previously worked with on the 2019 staging of Market Boy at the Union Theatre. Oxford School of Drama graduate Dayhill boasts credits including Small (Soho Theatre) and Three Sisters (North Wall Arts Centre), while Paul is best known as The Bill’s PC Dave Quinnan.
Gosling has previously had work performed at The Pleasance, Arcola, OSO Barnes, Rose & Crown E17, Bloomsbury Festival and Brighton Fringe, and director Allpress was Staff Director on the National Theatre’s production My Brilliant Friend and previously directed productions including Market Boy, Mercy, My Fair Lady and Blackadder.
Gosling and Allpress have been supported by the National HIV Story Trust in turning their vision of a stage show into a film, with a grant from The SE Franklin Trust. The National HIV Story Trust is a UK charity, which aims to preserve and tell the story of those affected by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
Interview with Moment of Grace writer Bren Gosling:
What inspired you to write Moment of Grace?
My original impetus came from the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival theme ‘Women activists and agents of change’. I don’t know why, but the Princess Diana handshake with an AIDS patient flashed across my mind. It was instantly recognisable as one of those historical moments that had an enormous impact on peoples’ lives. I feel the Diana handshake moment is SUCH an important part of our recent history, and many of the younger generation have no knowledge of the significance.
I pitched my idea for a play about the day – April 9th, 1987- when Princess Diana made a highly publicised visit to Britain’s first AIDS Unit and was photographed shaking the hand of one of the patients. Bloomsbury Festival loved it; I began researching and writing in earnest. What was it like to be there on that day? The play is told through the stories of a young nurse, Jude, Andrew, a patient on the Unit, and Donnie a fireman who suddenly discovers his son Ed is also connected to the event, in an unexpected yet very poignant way.
Why do you think this moment was so pivotal in the history of HIV/AIDS awareness?
Until the Diana handshake moment, the public’s perception and attitudes towards people with HIV/AIDS were characterised by fear, misinformation, hatred and stigma. Diana’s amazing gesture – beamed around the world on television screens and in the press – instantly lambasted the myths around HIV/AIDS. Her simple act of kindness, was a true ‘Moment of Grace.’
The piece was originally showcased at the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival. How were you feeling about bringing it to the London stage this summer?
Incredibly excited. The Bloomsbury showcase sold out and generated a huge amount of interest and debate. We also did a one-off performance for World AIDS Day in St Anne’s Church, Soho, which was packed, and very moving. Thomas Page Dance Company’s original short dance response to the play was subsequently commissioned by OFF BEAT in Oxford under their Supported Artist’s Programme and developed into a 30-minute choreography. I worked as dramaturg with the two dancers, Thomas Page and Llewellyn Lewis at Rambert School Rehearsal space. Tristan Bates Theatre also loved the idea of juxtaposing the play with new dance work. They offered me a three-week run to coincide with PRIDE in London. I had engaged Nicky Allpress, who recently worked as Staff Director on My Brilliant Friend at The National, to direct what would have been my first three week run. We also had set up a weekly post performance Q & A Panel and a discussion event hosted by London Metropolitan Archives. We hoped to outreach to schools. So…
How did you react when you realised this wasn’t going to happen because of COVID-19?
Well, obviously, I was very disappointed. I was sad. How cruelly ironic my play about the AIDS pandemic, that had gathered so much contemporary interest and momentum ( the play won NO: INTERMISSION International One Act Play competition – and was due to premiere in Sydney, Australia in May 2020 – now postponed), would be knocked off course by another pandemic (Covid -19) three decades on. But hey. It became apparent to me well before lockdown a live staged production of Moment of Grace in June/July 2020 was going to be unrealistic. Any time soon was going to be unrealistic.
How has the piece changed/evolved in turning it into a film?
Film is a very different medium to live theatre. Nicky and I have worked closely from conception of the film project with Bafta-nominated film maker and producer Paul Coleman to get it right. Paul’s charity – The National HIV Story Trust – was an early starting point for my original background research when I began writing the play two years ago. Nicky worked with Paul to produce a story board, and I joined Nicky, Paul and the cast on full and individual actor script reads to tweak and adjust the script to get the best out of it on film. Unfortunately, we had to ditch the choreography, as it would have been near impossible to film a duet in lockdown. We also had a cellist – Sam Creer – underscore the staged performance of the play, and that doesn’t really fit well with a filmed version. We have had to consider set and costume in a different way, as all the cast were filming individually in their own home environment.
Why did you think it was important to find a new way of telling this story at this time?
I felt it was important to try to continue a Moment of Grace in some way, to honour the original production, the potential of a three-week stage run and to bring something positive to fruition despite all the Covid gloom. This seemed particularly relevant because Moment of Grace is a play about a pandemic, and here we are, finding ourselves in the midst of another one. There are many, many parallels between the AIDS pandemic and today’s Covid pandemic, as well as some key differences. I thought, we MUST seize this opportunity. Besides, we’d already started auditioning, we had a solid, talented and enthusiastic production team on board, plus a small grant from the Franklin Trust. This meant I could actually pay professionals something reasonable for their involvement. Remaining creative in lockdown is important. This is us doing our bit!
How did you deal with the unique challenges that creating work in this way set you?
We auditioned, table read and rehearsed on ZOOM. We held cast and production meetings on ZOOM. All new ways of doing stuff, but, actually in many cases it has worked better than if we were all in the same room. We had to consider social distancing and infection control parameters as central to everything. As filming kit was couriered between cast, we had to show due diligence in this respect. We provided sanitiser and PPE as well as a ‘guidance on how to use’ video. Paul used Zoom to explore with individual actors prior to filming their set up at home, lighting and sound issues etc. Nicky, our director, made a rehearsal and filming schedule, and a storyboard for Paul to work to, and used her notes during filming to aid in the selection of the best actor ‘takes’. Actor stage / filming directions were given via Zoom on a parallel device whilst shooting to camera. Setting this up was daunting but it actually worked out very well in practice.
We programmed a pre-production (rehearsals and filming) and post-production (film editing/making) phase, alongside PR and social media thrust towards a target launch date – hopefully to coincide with or around Global Pride in June. Everything has moved along much faster than it would in live theatre – auditions, rehearsals, filming, marketing and PR have all had to been done at speed, without diminishing quality or our sense of the project mission: To produce a high quality film of Moment of Grace available for broadcast via digital platform with a quality theatre or cinema partner.
How are you feeling about sharing the piece with an online audience?
EXCITED. We are bringing something completely new to the table. A new production made in lockdown, highly relevant to the current state of the world. I think audiences will also be excited to engage with the film. It’s a powerful, dynamic portrayal. Something unique and hard to pull off by filming remotely. But I think we have shown it can be done.
Are you still hoping to bring the piece to the stage in the future?
Very much so, yes. The door is still open. The Sydney stage production WILL go ahead either later this year or in 2021 as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased. There WILL be a charity gala organised through one of the major London HIV clinics in 2021 – negotiations were well advanced before Covid struck – but the gala performance will go ahead too, next year. I very much hope the film of Moment of Grace will act in part as my calling card to theatres as a writer, and for Backstory Ensemble Productions Ltd, my production company.
What can audiences expect from Moment of Grace?
A powerful , entertaining emotional ride, which informs, stimulates , questions, and will leave you with a sense of hope in the enduring power of small acts of kindness.