Positive and new AIDS theatre

I’ll start by saying I’m both the best and worst person to be reviewing this play. Having spent 4 years immersed in HIV/AIDS theatre doing my PhD (further details on…) I freely admit I’m far too close to this topic.  

A lot of the time I spent looking at the history of AIDS plays was also spent wondering what a contemporary play on the subject would look like. While the odd play in recent years has made reference to or indeed deliberate non-reference to (The Boy From Oz I’m STILL looking at you for not ever naming what Peter Allen died of) HIV/AIDS over the years, there’s been little direct address, particularly from British theatre, so this play is certainly significant in that.

While thinking of that I’ve also spent much time, and may actually get down to now the thesis is done, writing my own version of the ‘AIDS play’  (do we still have to call it that? That’s another of my issues…) and I have many strong, particular ideas about what I think needs adding to the stage discussion of HIV/AIDS. But those are my stories to tell, so my feeling on Positive was it’s not the play I’d write, but it’s a play whose voice adds something important to the discussion. And it is so important we keep adding voices to that discussion, as ACT UP said so early on ‘Silence = Death’ and while the risks and dangers continue to change, I think our cultural dialogue has been too silent on the whole lately. Theatre should  return to doing what it did at the start and continue to lead the way out of that silence.  And Positive is a welcome addition to that. 

Positive is grounded in the 21st Century experience of HIV. It centres on impact emotionally of a positive diagnosis for young people today. Focused on Benji, diagnosed we learn around a year before, his life has taken a battering, being a bit reclusive and certainly not embarking on love (or sex) his health is good but the psychological impact is great. This is an important element to address when talking about HIV, particularly today where the fear of imminent serious illness (and death) that was at the focus of the earlier years where many of the plays on the subject come from, is shifted. Today a diagnosis for most will be a managed condition, one that will hopefully affect their lives only minimally if correctly treated. However the impact diagnosis can have on a person’s mental health is not one to be underestimated, and this play addresses that brilliantly. 

Benji struggles with the news, and with negotiating relationships-all kinds of relationships from family, to friends, to sexual to romantic. Positive gives a very honest open insight into what can happen to someone’s mental health as a result of their diagnosis. In having two positive characters, one of whom is a woman, we get a broader look at the impact of diagnosis today. Nikki has a different experience and one that is refreshing to see in a traditionally male dominated genre of plays. If I am honest I’d like to have seen more of her story too, but appreciate it’s a balancing act in crafting such things in a stage narrative. As it is Nikki’s story supports and expands on the experience we see Benji have with his diagnosis. Although initially she was supporting Benji as he discovered his diagnosis, we see how her own diagnosis, and initial ill health, continues to affect her life decisions. But importantly that both characters are still continuing with their lives.

The play also raises the valid, important issue of knowing your HIV status. It’s not the people like Benji, HIV positive but knowledgeable in the risks and precautions, that are a danger to anybody, but those like Olly the misguided (arguably intolerant) student. While humorous in his outrageous behaviour, there is a dark, sad undertone that bars, clubs and yes Grindr, is inhabited by boys like him, who intentionally or more often unintentionally are at risk. In not knowing his status Olly puts himself in danger as well as others. Although it is through his misguided ‘scare’ with Benji we see Olly being tested by the end of the play, the world is filled with Ollys, both in their prejudice and the ignorance in every sense which informs it. A valid point and the lesson of the play as a whole.  

The play is also mapped against a very young, and very ‘now’ backdrop. The minefields of texting etiquette, dating apps, and flat-shares along with ubiquitous smartphones populate the play. And the issues of HIV aside the nature of career, life, love and parents is a familiar one for-if I can use the horrible term ‘Millennials’ out there. And this familiarity of the world the characters inhabit may well bring in a younger audience, because while I’m a strong advocate for learning from historical pieces equally I also can’t doubt the power of also having something which contemporary audiences identify with. The language of the play, written by Shaun Kitchener who also appears as Matt in the play, is rich, vibrant and reflects the young demographic of its characters. For someone like me who has spent the best part of the last decade with my head stuck in 1980’s AIDS plays this was really refreshing. What is also refreshing is another British voice to the theatrical discussion of AIDS. Although British playwrights have taken on the subject it is an area dominated by American voices.

The production itself is well staged. Director Harry Burton uses minimal staging but gives the piece real character. The setting in the round is a great approach, and the intimate setting of the Park Theatre is a real advantage. The whole case are excellent, and there is a sense they are really at home with these characters. Particular mention also to the performance I saw which was interrupted by a fire alarm a few scenes in and the actors for dealing with that unscheduled interruption so seamlessly!

As I said at the start I am probably the best and worst person to write about this play. Best perhaps because I know the rich and varied history that Positive builds on, and that is quite the legacy to take on particularly for a young writer and cast. There’s inevitably also the muttered backlash I feel sure has came from those who ‘were there when’ who would like to disregard any modern take on HIV/AIDS. But that modern take is so important, and it’s exciting to me that young writers are lending their voice to this rather than dismissing it as another generation’s problem.

I am the worst person to write about this as I say,  because I am so ‘in it’. So crtically attached and emotionally attached to the subject matter after all these years. I also have, as a result many, many ideas of my own about what AIDS plays should be doing now. But in a way that’s irrelevant, that’s my story to add. The beautiful thing about ‘AIDS theatre’ is the myriad of stories that have been told, and the desperate sad thing that there are so many more stories to be told. So no, positive is not the story I would tell, but there’s plenty of time for that. There are so many stories we need to tell.

I think also it’s interesting this play has been on stage parallel to the revival of As Is, the first AIDS play (and incidentally I saw them on the same day, because why not make a day of it)  And actually Positive has many similar themes, not least a message of hope that sometimes gets lost in the more, shall we say ‘worthy’ AIDS theatre. As well as this a sense of humour, vital because in trying to talk about darker topics we need the light to balance it. These plays exist in very different worlds, but they do have their sense of the humanity of those affected by HIV at heart, and that is the mark of the strongest work on this topic.

Positive is at the Park Theatre, London until August 1st
As Is is at the Trafalgar Studios until August 1st

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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