It’s said that epidemics are the biggest threat to the human population. Since our technologies have so rapidly advanced and we are able to keep most diseases at bay, the fear of hubris lurks in the shadows. What if a second Black Death hits us? What if a disease that cannot be cured infects me? With occasional outbreaks such as SARS, Ebola and the Zika virus, we are always left with a fear – what if it was me? This fear moved right next door with the AIDS crisis, making sex and intimacy a major risk and cause of death for many.
Beirut at Park Theatre was written by Alan Bowne in the late 1980s as AIDS made its first punch, and though questions of how we cope with love and desire in high-risk circumstances related directly to the growing crisis then, it could easily be an image of an epidemic-struck future. In Beirut we’re in a dystopian underground basement, a rathole serving the purpose of keeping the contaminated (positives) in and the free ones out (negatives). If you’ve tested positive of the epidemic you are in lock-in like Torch (Robert Rees), a risk to society and in waiting for when symptoms start to show and slowly kill you. A highly contagious disease that spreads through fluids, Torch is left waiting to die, without the possibility of seeing the outside world again. Blue (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) on the other hand is a negative, yet untouched by the epidemic. For negatives sex is illegal as it’s too high risk, and so both are forced to live life in loneliness. Problem is, Blue and Torch are in love, and so when Blue sneaks in to Torch’s unit, a heated mix of desire, love and desperation is set alight.
Liz Ascroft’s set design propels us right into the urban limbo and serves as a visceral holding pen for Torch and his broken luck. Leigh Porter’s lighting is superb and gives us a beautiful sense of being immersed in the space, and John Leonard’s sound design echoes the violence of the world we’re in and the language that’s being slammed around the room as both love tokens and punishments. The actors have brilliant chemistry, and these said chemicals seem to fire off towards each other, making it clear that these two people cannot live without each other. It’s a status game, you can’t lose face, as the moment you do, you lose the one person that’s going to make you feel alive. There’s high risk in the room as Blue tries to convince Torch to let her stay though it’s against the law and she is risking getting infected. The weapons used are sex and a push and pull of teach and intimacy, and hands down to the actors for braving this beyond the public space comfort zone.
The play lives on this idea of life needing love and sex and what happens when we’re stripped of the two, but it is also its Achilles’ heel. It’s an interesting question – what if the thing that will kill us is what makes us alive – but the play perhaps falls into the trap of following this one track of sexual game playing. We see it in all variations, and there’s some brilliant acting here, but I was longing for the interaction beyond desire, of more moments of them being vulnerable because they need love and each other and not just sexual fulfilment.
That said, Robin Lefevre’s direction is dynamic and exhilarating, with a real sense of movement and unrest, making Beirut a sexy and vigorous love story of the near future.
Beirut is playing at the Park Theatre until 7 July
Photo: Park Theatre website