As Is was written 30 years ago, amidst the unfolding carnage of the Aids epidemic in the gay community. It tells the story of Rich, a 20-something writer in New York, coming to terms with his diagnosis and his decay at the hands of the disease in a stiflingly grisly atmosphere of paranoia and ignorance. We meet many people along the way and hear of many more who are fighting and have fought the disease. We see the effects of the disease up-close in Rich’s story and see the sheer expanse of the problem – not in some neat, rounded figure but in lists of names of lives pitilessly cut short.
This play’s crowning achievement is that the potency of its plot is as piercing 30 years on as, I suspect, it would have been to gay New Yorkers in the 1980s. That is no mean feat. Through all of the films, TV dramas and plays I’ve seen on the Aids crisis, this is the first that really hit home, that showed how personal and yet totally impersonal the disease is. It disturbed me on a deep level and left me in disarray.
Despite the acute effect it had on me, it was never indulgent. We saw glimpses of characters onstage battling the deepest of existential crises as well as the physical effects of this powerfully destructive disease and all of the profound and raw emotional turmoil that can only come with conditions as tragic as this. And yet, it never lingered too long. There was no sense that we were peering into the spectacle of someone’s life falling away beneath them. As quickly as tears began to roll, the audience would be laughing again at the bravely stoical characters making witty cutting remarks. It is the queer armoury – wit, intelligence and passion – and it’s what has kept the gay community going in the face of so much adversity.
However, as adept as the production is in some areas, it is equally as hammy and awkward in others – it’s not clear whether this is down to the script or the direction. There are moments that feel a little like you’re watching a school production – the whole cast sometimes turns into a chorus to deliver a ‘telling’ line like, “don’t touch me” or “we don’t know, we simply don’t know”. There’s also a club scene where we bewilderingly flit between several strands of dialogue, one line at a time. It ends with the cast acting in slow motion as Rich, played by Steven Webb, says something that might well have been the most erudite line of the whole play but will forever remain a mystery to me because I was distracted by the bartender, played by former Mr Gay UK Dino Fetscher, trying to simulate juggling a bottle in slow motion. Despite the handful of flaws and even given how stunning and devastating some moments in the play are, the highlight is watching the sharp and skillful cast at work.
After the show ended, the director stood up and urged the audience to use the rapid HIV testing kits provided in the theatre foyer by the sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street, revealing that he himself is coming to terms with his new HIV+ status. As Is is not a classical parable with a stuffy, self-evident moral message; the themes of the play are more raw and pressing than anything else you else you are likely to see on the stage. It is about an epidemic that is decades-old and still devastating lives in 2015.