‘As Is’ is the first AIDS play, the first response to a crisis, from those on the front line. It could be asked why then is this still relevant over 30 years on, but it is precisely because it is that first response that gives it such drive, such impact still. And that the crisis may have changed, but that AIDS is still an issue, and one that urgently still needs our attention is why it is so important that this play is revived.
Director Andrew Keates brings the production first staged at the Finborough in 2013 to the Trafalgar Studios, and the new setting brings even more life to this dynamic production. A real ensemble piece with each actor taking on multiple parts to paint a picture of New York in the early days of AIDS. At its centre are Rich and Saul, who we meet in the midst of a breakup
The production begins with an affecting soundscape of discussions about AIDS. The terrifying news reports that declared the ‘Gay Plague’ and condemning those who had it. This soundscape not only pulls the audience into the world of the play, foreshadowing the action with the real life news reports that preceded it in reality, but also allows the audience to reflect on their own experience. Asking ourselves ‘when did you first hear about AIDS?’ makes us enter the play considering our own expectations, experience and afterwards what we might now do about those.
As Is puts people at its centre. The relationship between Rich (Steven Webb) and Saul (David Poynor) is disintegrating as the play opens and they squabble about their possessions and Rich’s new lover Chet. When Rich begins to show signs of AIDS his new relationship breaks down and he asks Saul for help. As their relationship shifts and develops as Rich’s illness manifests, there is backdrop of characters who flesh out the backdrop of the early days of AIDS. We see his struggles with both physical and emotional toll of the illness, not only on Rich but those around him. The relationship with Saul, with his friends and movingly his brother all show the life-changing and terrifying impact an AIDS diagnosis had at this time.
These characters, played skilfully and equally hilariously and movingly by the rest of the cast, show the Doctors, Nurses, support groups, helpline staff and friends who were attempting to confront the AIDS epidemic. The often chaotic scenes pull the audience into this colourful and confusing world. The staging brings this sometimes literally into the laps of the audience with the fourth wall being broken, involving the audience in this world as well. Most moving of these surrounding characters is perhaps the hospice worker who bookends the piece, she sees these patients come and go, and also the treatment they get from the hospitals and the outside world. The Hospice Worker’s closing thoughts, thinking about two patients-one Rich who is currently fighting and fighting hard, and another man clinging onto life the audience is reminded of the vast spread of AIDS and it’s reaching impact. As the lights come up and the audience sees the walls set up so audiences can graffiti the names of those lost, they might then go back to that original question of when they first heard of AIDS, and all that has happened since.
Despite the subject matter As Is has to be one of the most hopeful plays ever written. It ends for Rich and Saul on a hopeful, and also defiant note. In any play this is a powerful ending, but for one about AIDS it seems so very important. To leave the play feeling optimistic about love and life is surely its greatest tool. A less overtly political play than some of its contemporaries, but the lack of political content doesn’t make it apolitical. The message may be centrally about love, but what else motivates us to action more than love? For an enduring message on AIDS through theatre, this first response, and the response of care and love has more longevity than the politics of the time.
As Is runs at the Trafalgar Studios until August 1st. There are also a variety of post-show events discussing the past, present and future of AIDS.
On Fridays there is also free HIV testing.