It isn’t often that I find myself following in the cultural footsteps of Stephen Fry, but yesterday morning’s Twitter browsing revealed that Fry had spent the previous evening at the play I had tickets for that evening. A play that officially opened on Thursday, that’s only running for the rest of this month and in a tiny theatre – what were the chances?
As a disclaimer, I will point out that the main reason I had a ticket at all was because an old friend stars in the production. However, all my views are my own and honest at that – he knows that if I don’t like something I’ll say so, even if it’s at his expense!
As Is was first staged in 1985 and is widely regarded as being the first play about AIDS. William Hoffman wrote it in the midst of seeing at first-hand the damage that this mysterious disease was doing to his circle of friends. Set primarily in St Vincent’s Hospital, a hospice for many of New York’s first AIDS victims, the play explores attitudes and reactions to the disease from both within and outside the gay community. Through the story of Rich and Saul – a couple brought back together after the former is diagnosed – and flashbacks of their lives together, the audience is drawn into the world of those first years of the devastating outbreak.
It’s intense. Finborough Theatre is small – very small – and the audience is close to the action at all times. It runs for 90 minutes with no interval, so the atmosphere is never broken. When I stood up at the end of the performance, I had to unfold myself out of the position I’d been sitting in without moving for the entire duration, so absorbed I barely moved an inch from start to finish. The cast get little time off the stage too, forming a chorus behind the main players until the play’s final scenes. It’s emotional, it couldn’t be a play about the death of so many people without emotion, but it’s genuine. The cast carry that emotion and draw the audience in. You root for Rich and Saul, for their relationship with one another, for Rich’s health, for their friends and family…
And then you remember that this isn’t fiction. Rich and Saul may not be real, but they’re based on real people – many of them. That the fear that Rich has about dying and the fear Saul has of catching the disease were (and are) genuine. In the early 1980’s no one really understood exactly what was going on, just that countless friends were dying, often in horrible ways.
As Is hasn’t been staged in the UK since 1987 – perhaps people felt it was passé, that with Angels in America and Rent, the AIDS thing had kind of been done – but it isn’t passé, far from it. The world has been aware of AIDS for almost exactly the same length of time as I’ve been in existence, and although there have been massive medical advances and huge progress in attitudes to the disease, there’s still no cure. It is still a disease of pandemic proportions. But I wonder if western society forgets that when AIDS first emerged it was healthy white men it struck down first, and instead concentrate on its impact on the African subcontinent – AIDS is now something that happens ‘over there’. Except it happens here too. It’s not sorted.
I was surprised by how much the play seemed to have to say about God in the context of this epidemic. Reading Hoffman’s preface in the programme notes, I noticed a mention of God in the writing of the play:
“I was willing to go to any lengths for my play, except to imagine myself having AIDS. I was not afraid of contracting the disease through casual physical contact with those who had it. I was well aware that AIDS is transmitted only by an exchange of bodily fluids. But on a deeply irrational level, I was terrified of catching it by identifying with those who had it. Consequently, for a long period, my central characters, Rich and Saul, were shadowy and undeveloped, compared with the background figures. But one day I realized the depth of my fear and asked God to protect me as I wrote the play. He did.”
The audience is led through the play’s events by an Irish could-have-been-a-nun hospice worker, whose faith is evident in her regular monologues – something you might expect from someone who was nearly a nun. What is unexpected are the depictions of religious experience that both Rich and Saul (who describes himself as an atheist, from a Jewish family) have. On the last day before the illness that eventually led to his diagnosis, Rich experiences the presence of God and the beauty of creation as he runs past New York’s bridges. Saul seems sceptical of religion until a pivotal moment in the play (I’ll avoid spoilers), when God seems to speak to him in the reflection of a sex-shop sign in a puddle. God moves in very mysterious ways…
What I loved about the play, aside from the excellent performances and intense subject, was that it wasn’t without hope. In 1985 it would have been very easy to write a play that was hopeless and full of death, in the context of a pandemic that was still raging. But that’s not what As Is is about, it’s hopeful. Hopeful that not all will die, that attitudes can and do change, that relationships can be rekindled and that God is amongst all of it.
The play runs at the Finborough Theatre near Earls Court until the end of August and tickets are a veritable bargain for a London production. I could not recommend it more highly! (You don’t need to just take my word for it either, the BBC and Time Out have also had very positive things to say about it.)