There are those rare occasions when wonderfully and magically everything comes together in the theatre: director, cast, lighting, set, sound, everyone is firing at the top of their game, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
As Is, at The Trafalgar Studios, is spellbindingly one of those occasions, which I will admit surprised me, as I went along experiencing something akin to trepidation.
William M Hoffman’s play, presented to great acclaim in New York in 1985 and revived at The Finborough Theater in August 2013, is billed as ‘The First AIDS play’ so, given the subject matter, I was expecting 80 minutes of somewhat worthy medical homily. How wrong I was. I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed – or cried – so much in the theatre.
For all the impressive attendant parts which go to make up this magical evening, it really is the Director, Andrew Keates’ show. Mr Keates, who did so much to build up The Landor into Clapham’s mini theatrical powerhouse, shows by his extremely fluid and interlaced direction that he’s fully ready to take his place amongst the top flight of directors of his generation. That he coaxes from his actors performances of such charm, nuance, and bravery shows that he not only loves this play, but understands the motivations of the protagonists better than anyone.
The play concerns a group of friends in New York in the early 1980’s as the spectre of HIV/AIDS is just making itself known.
Rich (a quixotic and utterly charming Steven Webb) a blond WASP writer in his early twenties, is in the process of breaking up with his Jewish photographer lover, Saul (a suitably neurotic David Poyner), having fallen in love with the young graduate student Chet (Giles Cooper), when he tags along with Lily (Natalie Burt), an aspiring actress as she asks Saul to take some head shots for her.
Chet succumbs to the new mystery gay cancer, and it isn’t long before Rich starts to show symptoms, however, when his health insurance company abandons him, with nowhere else to turn, Rich goes back to Saul who has never stopped loving him.
Rich’s Brother (Dino Fetscher), a stacked straight married jock with children, gives his sibling a wide berth, fearing he too will somehow succumb.
As things progress, more and more people are lost or looking for help to understand what bleak future awaits them, and we get a sense not only of the fear that gripped America, and for that matter the world, but also the sense that in the US in particular -a community where previously epidemics had been a cause behind which the nation could come together – under right wing administrations, and fuelled in no small part by the country’s homophobia, those with HIV/AIDS were not seen as victims, but social pariahs and the instruments of their own downfall.
A very necessary, and beautifully realised sense of humanity is injected by the appearance of a hospice worker (Jane Lowe) a former nun who has lost her faith in the face of the tragedy she sees around her, but in its place has developed a deep sense of humanity as she cares for those who fall under her charge.
The humanity is also deeply underscored by a punch to the gut in the beautifully realised reconciliation between Rich and his brother though, as elsewhere in the play, the emotional intensity of the reunion is masterfully undercut straight away with a solid injection of hilarious truth between the characters.
I won’t give away the ending, suffice to say it is both life-affirming and uplifting, and realised with mastery by this top notch cast.
With people in the rich west now living with HIV/AIDS as a chronic, though treatable condition, this play might seem like a period piece. It isn’t. It deals with humanity and love and those are the two great human values which I hope will always be with us.