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Here in the UK, February is LGBTQ+ History Month – twenty-eight days dedicated to the enrichment of our society through positive education. One sorrowful, but mammoth, part of that historic patchwork is the AIDS crisis that began in the eighties, an epidemic of HIV which still affects millions today.
According to figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2018 there were 37.9 million people around the world living with HIV, and now with a pandemic gripping the globe, there are a huge number of people suffering with both diseases.
Circles, written by Beverly Andrews, is a collection of short plays originally written and produced in 2012; devised to bring a voice and a reality to the stories of those surrounded, and affected by HIV and AIDS. The first of these short plays, Michael’s Story, was revived for a rehearsed reading in 2020 by The Actor’s Quarantine Collective, directed by its author and starring actors from both sides of the pond.
Michael’s Story is initially set at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1975 New York, before there was any real prevalence of the disease. Michael, a southern boy, just turned 18, is catapulted into a world of sexual exploration and self-expression, as he begins an affair with an older man, Rob. Extremely naïve, Michael experiences an education in this new lifestyle, where he finds challenging contradictions with his own morals and his expectations of love.
The play feels like a microcosm of gay life; Andrews using the lightest touch to bring together fleeting moments of the eccentricities and intricacies that you find daily amongst people who have had to fight to live life as themselves. Clearly written retrospectively, there are moments of comical commentary about things that have moved on since the seventies such as pop culture, technology, and social attitudes. All the while, this is balanced against weighty accounts of Stonewall and friends lost to AIDS, creating dynamically realistic dialogue.
As a rehearsed reading, the performance is very well moderated. Excusing some technical hiccups and the standard Zoom glitches (such as not being able to speak and play music at the same time), the production is slick and well organised. You only see who needs to be seen in the scenes whilst the narration and music add context and atmosphere.
The cast approach their roles with a punchy energy which helps to keep the action alive even without any physical blocking, and their performances are slick without any noticeable faux pas. Greg Miller Burns and Oliver Hamilton, (Michael and Rob respectively) lead the cast superbly, managing to hit some very heightened emotional points throughout the piece. Playing off each other to build tension toward the play’s climax, I feel fully invested and immersed within their world. Burn’s innocent approach to the role balances perfectly with Hamilton’s more wizened performance and helps to bring an air of charm as we watch Michael on his journey of discovery and heartache.
Hard hitting at points, this play is a beautiful and well-crafted look into the love, life, and loss of LGBTQ+ people. Whilst awareness and education of HIV is increasing – reducing the stigma which surrounds it – there is still a long way to go for those working tirelessly to fight it.
Circles: Michael’s Story is available to stream online via The Actor’s Quarantine Collective’s YouTube Channel.