With the 16th January being labelled as the ‘most depressing day of the year’, concluding ‘Blue Monday’ watching a play that focuses on the HIV/Aids epidemic is, perhaps, apt. The disease has killed more than 35 million people and the World Health Organisation estimates that the same number again are currently living with it. A play about the misunderstood virus, however, is certainly not a negative thing and The HIV Monologues by Patrick Cash is quite frankly right on the money.
The audience is immediately engaged with the play as it begins with familiar territory – a Tinder date. Anxious, camp and with a touch of cringe, Alex (Denholm Spurr) approaches Nick (Sean Hart), a seemingly straight-laced and ‘macho’ man who at this point is not physically shown. Engrossed and ultimately relieved, we watch Alex clumsily navigate his way through the date encountering awkward silences, poorly judged jokes, and a battle with the voices in his head; until a shared love of Britney Spears (obviously) changes things. With the date going well, Nick reveals to Alex that he has just been diagnosed HIV+.
The continuous laughter that filled the theatre during the first five minutes of the play noticeably and understandably disappears. Although the content of the play is sensitive, Cash is aware that comedy can lighten the bleakest of subjects. Chuckles in the auditorium return when Nick catches Alex, stuck in the bathroom window, attempting to escape. And at this momentously awkward moment the premise of The HIV Monologues is revealed: a realistic account of the long-lasting effects a virus has on a community that is unrepresentatively targeted by it – gay men comprising 67% of all HIV diagnoses.
The direction and set design of The HIV Monologues are kept simple, a lone chair centre stage accompanied by yellow lights and spotlights. The simplicity of this allows the content of the play to take precedence as the words and the experiences of these gay men are more than just stories, but a reality. The play alternates between modern day and the 1980s with dialogue such as the ‘gay disease’ crucial to communicating the change in time.
The play begins to interweave the stories of four gay men, two couples who are each affected by HIV and AIDS. The tale of partners Barney (Jonathan Blake) and Eric who remain jubilant against the prejudice they face in hospital whilst Eric losing his battle to AIDS evokes an intense emotion; and is balanced with the frustrating and classic ‘will they, won’t they?’ between Alex and Nick. The natural performances of both Spurr and Hart melts the most stoic of hearts inspiring hope for a reconciliation and a happy-ending; especially once Nick is presented to the audience. Prior to this, Nick and Eric were characterised through dialogue and their significant others. This effective device enables the audience to emotionally connect with their characters rather than them being defined by the virus, which is the unfortunate consequence the stigma of having HIV has caused.
The HIV Monologues tackles a taboo topic with such integrity and should not be regarded as a play solely for the gay community. The wider message of the play draws upon the importance of sexual health, so therefore anybody who is sexually active can relate to Cash and director Luke Davies’s production. Although it is shocking that HIV/AIDS still creates mass hysteria three decades after it first emerged, the new development in life saving drugs means a play like The HIV Monologues should be used to educate outdated prejudice.
The HIV Monologues is strong, and it is powerful. The entire cast have done gay men everywhere proud. Perhaps this is not surprising as both Cash and Davies are founders of Dragonflies Theatre, a production company committed to the LGBT+ community. Furthermore Blake, who was one of the first people diagnosed with HIV, has a direct emotional commitment to the play.
Anyone in the audience could be Alex, and anyone could be Nick. What makes The HIV Monologues a play for everyone is that regardless of their sexuality, they are both human beings who are ultimately looking for love and genuine companionship. A tale of love and prejudice from outside and inside the walls of the gay community itself.
Nick comments that dealing with HIV/AIDS is like “coming out all over again”‘ and quite frankly I am glad that The HIV Monologues is out of the closet.
The HIV Monologues has ended its run at Theatre 503, and returns to the Miranda London, Ace Hotel on February 2.