AS IS by Wiliam M. Hoffman. Directed by Andrew Keates
AS IS at the Trafalgar Studio’s runs until August 1st. The most important thing you need to take from this review is “go see this play”.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, kind of odd as it’s a gay play about AIDS. And that – on the surface is of course what we got. But underneath and on so many levels we got so much more. After some initial opening moment nerves and a slightly jittery start from the cast, I was treated to an experience that was as beautiful and raw as it was touching and funny. As we took our seats in the intimate space, the black box studio had been dressed in little more than: a light blue color washed back wall, some light boxes, a hand full of chairs, a desk and two sets of lockers completed the almost benign environment that each of it’s cast members occupies, inhabits, owns and eventually electrifies. Each in their own way and sometimes at the most unexpected moments. After taking our seats we have a ten minute hiatus during which the performers arrived one by one and almost became living parts of the scenery, set to the back drop of audio clip’s from news bulletins, Politicians speeches, interviews with Aids victims and even a few lines from the play’s director Andrew Keates on why he was driven to produce his “tiny, little play”. Some of the voices, harked back some 30 odd years to the time of patient zero.
One snippet from the early 80’s that’s still ringing in my ears is that of a news reader announcing that “up to 413 people may have contracted the Aids virus in that year alone” – if only we were dealing with such minimal and manageable cases of new infections in 2015. In London alone 1 gay guy is newly diagnosed each day and a staggering 1 in 4 positive people in the UK are unaware that they have the virus.
This play, although set in 1985, could not be less dated or more appropriate for today’s audience if it tried. Not only is it a history lesson, it’s a lesson in our present and could actually have been a recounting of my own story, of my experiences of HIV and my love life over the past 3 years. This is where the play is a winner. When a gay play about AIDS stops being a gay play about AIDS and transcends it’s narrative and restraints to a point where it is becomes the most universal and human of things – people needing people, then you know you’re watching magic. In fact, so magical and accurate was this transcendence, that I was incredibly uncomfortable. Bearing in mind that as part of the audience in this intimate space, you are practically on stage and fully lit with these actors at all times. In fact I had Rich (played by Steve Webb, combining equal parts ‘cheeky chap’ and ‘faux swag’) sat on my knee during a nightclub scene, where I unwittingly became part of the cast/his prop. Not that I was complaining, Rich is a loveable character and easy on the eye too. However, as I felt that I was re-living my own life through and with and these characters my emotions were too hard to conceal. Be that laughter or a sudden flood of tears. It was intense and priceless.
The writing was unquestionably succinct – the performances were that genius balance of measured yet brave and so commendably committed to. And I got lost in my attempts at deciphering which should be credited most with creating in me the emotional journey that I was suddenly – without warning – flung on to.
I watched and fought back tears through out as Rich and his ex-lover/BFF Saul (played beautifully by dewy eyed David Poynor) constantly played ping pong with who was being the brave face and the support giver in this duo battling their uninvited foe AIDS. The direction and imagery here was beautiful. The whole piece felt like I was watching a photo album of the two’s final chapter play out in real time – offering us those snap shot moments and their back stories to be treasured and perhaps looked back on in years to come with a melancholy fondness.
I have to mention the cast as a whole. Apart from Steve and David as Rich and Saul, the rest of the cast all played multiple parts and did so with finesse.
Of course the play and it’s performances had a few flaws. But these were few and far between and even the purest diamond has its small flaws. And that in my opinion is what ‘AS IS’ is – A diamond. Go see it sparkle for yourself!