In a perfect world, perhaps sex and society would be distinctly separate. Neither would impact or reflect upon the other, and they could exist in total isolation from one another. For better or for worse, that certainly isn’t the world that we live in. Instead, it’s all but impossible to extricate sex from the circumstances in which it takes place: it’s subject to a whole world of opinions, not to mention millennia of history. In this play at least, sex seems to provide a catalyst for all of these external forces to come crashing in.
Tom Wright’s Undetectable frequently feels as if it’s actually less about sex or HIV, important though both of these topics still are, and more about the parts we can choose to play, and the extent to which we can control who we are. There are characteristics we can’t control, but is it within our power to determine the power that these hold? In the same vein, it’s certainly true that there are innumerate times in life where it’s easy to feel forced to pick a faction or type, to make a statement on the type of person we are. But is it possible to just not pick, to not align? Or is that just as much of a statement in its own right?
On the one hand, this is definitely a play about more or less universal experiences of human intimacy. Everyone brings something of their past into every situation, and sex is no different. On the other hand, it’s also very, very specifically a play about LGBT+ men living in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. There’s definitely an awareness that ‘now’ both can and should be different: as Bradley (played by Lewis Brown) puts it, “I’m going to live, the envy of generations of ghosts”. Simply through the act of being aware of what came before, the present becomes an act of homage.
My one real complaint would be that the ending feels somewhat forced. The answers which the characters seem to find in its final moments don’t possess any of the complexity which is woven into the questions that they’ve spent so long struggling to even give voice or name to. The desire to bring a play like this to a comfortable ending makes a lot of sense, especially because there’s no shortage of media where gay characters are systematically denied positive endings to their stories. If the alternative is adding to this trend, then perhaps a slightly contrived but generally comfortable ending is for the best. With that said, it does still feel subtly out of kilter with the rest of the piece.
Undetectable’s strongest moments definitely lie in its exploration of how and where the individual and the community meet, and whether ‘community’ in any sense is something that we can simply opt out of. It gracefully handles the interplay between personal experience and societal shockwaves, giving potentially uncomfortable topics the time and conversation that they deserve. If we’re going to live in peace with the present and the past, perhaps the most important thing we can do is talk about it. Give it time and give it space, and the rest will look after itself.
Undetectable is playing King’s Head Theatre until 6 April 2019. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website.