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Theatre Review: As Is (Trafalgar Studios, London)

as is They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. Steven Webb (left) and David Poynor (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.
as is

They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. Steven Webb (left) and David Poynor (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

In A Nutshell

A profound and moving play that evokes a deep response, As Is is a witness of pure and real love that’s still vitally thrilling and important.

Overview

Rich, an aspiring young writer in New York, has just broken-up with his long-term partner, Saul, to be with his new lover. However, Rich soon contracts HIV, and after being dumped himself leaves him alone to face the then inevitable. So he turns to Saul for solace.

As Is

Estranged bedfellows. David Poynor (back) and Steven Webb (front). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Writing

William M. Hoffman wrote As Is in response to the HIV/AIDs epidemic he himself witnessed in the 1980s. Despite there being a lot of grief and loss surrounding the subject, Hoffman does the almost unthinkable: writing a bittersweet comedy-drama about what it was like to live and die by the disease in a world that feared it and loathed those infected. Surprisingly, As Is isn’t distasteful or perverse, but the humour sets a foundation for simply being a play about indomitable humanity and feeds into some humbly truthful portrayals of life and love in the 1980s gay community. The jokes are dark but somehow comforting and simultaneously heartbreaking. As the saying goes, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and whilst you’ll almost most certainly cry, the humour gives As Is a glint of astonishing hope.

Most shockingly for some, but factually honest to others, is As Is’ portrayal of sex. Promiscuity within the context of As Is is by far shown as something dirty or squalid, but a lively and intimate part of socialisation and relationships. Rather than blame or demonise the free love for the rapid spread of the deadly disease, its explored and used as a key theme for learning about the characters and their lives and portraying them as real people. It’s a challenging approach, but it really pushes a base and non-sensationalised view of real life, evoking a new way of thinking and understanding the crisis. Sex , here, is a pivotal and complex dynamic in the development of the central relationship that makes As Is so ground-breaking and challenging. Likewise, although the attitudes of many were simply deplorable at the time – and Hoffman by no means excuses it – it does breach upon the complexity people trying to understand things and embrace love in a atmosphere of fear, making some scenes utterly heart-wrenching. Although actions are certainly called-out and derided, there’s a palpable deep crunch of internal conflicts across the board that makes As Is highly intelligent and empathetic.

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Going deeper underground. The cast of ‘As Is’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

As Is’ characters are also as complex and organic as the subject. For example, Rich, the central character, is incredibly flawed and almost unlikeable, brimming with a selfish arrogance and ego. But when Hoffman puts him through the mill of having to come to terms with such horrific circumstance, out of Rich’s less than endearing veneer is prised out a heartbreaking seizure of life by staring straight at death. Everyone written into As Is are unequivocally three dimensional and reality-inspired portraits of people, warts and all, through which Hoffman’s narrative mechanics teases a transformative drama out of each of them.

Yet all of the above comes for a place of truth and emotion that it never at any point feels like propaganda or a cautionary essay. What Hoffman does is present the issue and the people if effected in the manner of which the title suggests – as is – and does nothing more than to shown the humanity and the love that triumphed through some of the darkest adversity of modern times. In some ways, As Is has become a bit of a history play in the wake of better understanding of the disease and great advancements in its control and treatment. But its still an intense harbinger of the deplorable and dangerous behaviours and opinions surrounding a still hotly and often callously debated subject. This makes As Is hit home hard and emboldens the need for understanding and, most importantly, love.

Direction & Production

Transferring from its celebrated run at the Finborough Theatre, Andrew Keates and their team brings As Is to the West End at Trafalgar Studios. With a slightly larger space to work with, the relocation of the production loses no lustre and its easy to see why its so celebrated.

As is

I went to a marvellous orgy. The cast of ‘As Is’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set design is a grimy underground setting with crusty lockers and rusty pipes, representing everything from a sweaty leather bar, to run down hospices and sex-soaked bathhouses. But when combined with Neil Brinkworth’s lighting design, there’s a piercing blaze of colour and life beneath the grunge, juxtaposing a dramatic and brilliant humanity against the superficial dirt: a wonderful visualisation Hoffman’s abstract. Yet as visually stimulating and intelligent as the set is, it leaves enough room for Keates and their cast to really explore As Is without lumbering it with too much aesthetic.

As for Keates’ direction, they approach the text with a balanced mixture of stylisation and naturalistic drama. Yes, there are some moments where it possibly feels a bit OTT, but that’s merely a matter of personal opinion. These slightly awkward moments are in places that mean that though they’re a bit odd they take absolutely nothing away from As Is, often adding a much needed lightness regardless of verging on being a bit silly. But other moments of stylisation adds bounds to the effect of the show. Sound walls, cross-over of scenes and other techniques really tease out a brutal drama or tenderness that really lifts As Is. At the same time, Keates knows when to let the action play out intimately and naturalistic in order to let the audience connect with a scene on a quieter and more personal basis. It’s a very tactile and well thought out direction that comes from a phenomenal connection with the text itself.

As Is

Hello, nurse! Jane Lowe in ‘As Is’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

The two leads, Steven Webb as Rich and David Poynor as Saul, manage to conjure and share a wonderful on-stage rapport. From their interactions you really get the fractious, bitter, and sometimes desperate maelstrom of emotions that cascade between them. As the central characters, they convincingly absolutely hold your attention as they bicker and embrace each other whilst learning more and more about themselves and steeling themselves against Rich’s encroaching demise. It’s a wonderful partnership that really propels the heartbreak of As Is and you couldn’t ask for a better leading duo.

The rest of the cast are also great as the multitude of minor parts as well their specific supporting roles, all of them, too, reaching deep to find a connection with the issues and challenges they’re portraying. However, special mention must go to Jane Lowe as the Irish hospice nurse, blending pathos, life, and beautifully inappropriate humour that makes them an incredibly charming and loveable anchor to As Is.

Verdict

As Is is a personally transformative piece of theatre. Beautifully human and unashamedly challenging, As Is is an essential event for anyone who is curious about, affected by, or remembers the HIV/AIDs epidemic and its continuing legacy.

As Is plays at Trafalgar Studios, London, SW1A 2DY from 1 July – 1 August 2015. Tickets are £17.50 – £27.50. To book, visit www.atgtickets.com/trafalgarstudios.