Katherine Suzette Vizcaino, MSc Violence Conflict & Development
“Rich is so terrified of the path to his death that he is constantly trying to push everyone away, while simultaneously being terrified of being alone.”
The play ‘As Is’, written by William M. Hoffman, gives a view into the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, through the changing relationship of couple Saul and Rich, while overlaying an overview of the LGBTQI community and their own relationship to the world at large.
Rich (played by Emanuele Frascadore), the infected partner, was presented as the stereotypical gay man of the 1980s, flirty, unfaithful, interested in arts, clubbing, drinking and having as many sexual liaisons as possible. He was an ascending writer rejecting the ‘conventional’ partnership desired by his partner Saul (Konrad Suder Chatterjee), his fame curtailed by a disease no one knew much about. Rich’s friends and family had their own fears: of catching the disease; of spreading it themselves; of being tainted by association; of shame and ignorance. The entire medical community struggled to understand the causes of HIV or how to stop it. Rich is so terrified of the path to his death that he is constantly trying to push everyone away, while simultaneously being terrified of being alone. He broke up with Saul and spurned his offers of support during treatment, with the audience not sure if it was heartfelt, or a covert offering of protection for his ex-partner. Saul was hurt by Rich’s rejection of him and their romantic relationship – but not enough to turn his back on a friend in trouble. Though Saul himself was afraid of contracting the disease, his love and compassion overrode the fear and enabled him to be a mountain of support. You feel for Saul trying so desperately to give someone he loves comfort while knowing as the onlooker, that he also needed comfort himself.
Chatterjee’s performance as Saul was wonderfully nuanced, the stalwart friend, partner, and moral conscience of the play. His love for Rich was the abiding and sincere love of a life partner, with a deep loyalty and belief in the ‘good times and bad, till death do us part’ wedding vow, even when same-sex marriage was not only rejected but ridiculed – with stereotypes painting gay men as incapable of feeling the same type of love as hetero couples all too common. Frascadore was most effective in the bedridden scenes, deflecting pain with sarcasm through tears, and letting the audience finally see behind the façade into the despair, fear and loneliness the illness imposes. Whilst the whole cast was incredible two other actors deserve special mention: Grace Rich brought levity and incredible comedic timing in multiple roles, and Clarissa Mondeh was thoroughly convincing in each of her avatars.
The characters filled out the picture well, the hospice worker describing the difficulty of her work, and of seeing the physical and psychological impacts on her patients; the friends and family who went from support to shock to fear to sadness to numbness and to support again for Rich. The tyranny of the disease was visceral, and the cast all speaking over each other at times mirrored the cacophony of feeling when everything comes to the fore at once, yet never knowing where it was coming from next or when it would stop. The paranoia that surrounded the AIDS crisis was eloquently played out: the fears of losing those you love, or of being lost yourself, the anger of why it has happened to you, were all well-reflected. When Rich says “if I go I will take everyone I can with me”, was a chilling but true snapshot of the people who knowingly infected others, reactions of vengeance caused by shock, pain, or desperate anger. This happened in both the heterosexual and homosexual communities.
Today we have AZT and other antiretroviral medications which limit the symptoms of HIV and allows sufferers to live a normal life, as well as PrEP to help prevent contracting HIV in the first place, but there is a danger of complacency in thinking these are infallible, or curative. The British production presented at SOAS kept the New York place names but more importantly the urgency of the hysteria, which then as now transcends locality. People in less developed countries need drugs for treatment but there is so
much stigma and difficulty in getting the drugs at times that the existence of treatment seems irrelevant. As director Oscar Ward remarked to the audience at the play’s close: this illness is not ‘over’, the situations depicted in the play are not ‘over’, and we must keep educating about, and dealing with the effects of HIV/AIDS in all our communities.
This well-directed play, with a well-picked cast, did great justice to the original script. As Is should be performed in schools and universities everywhere; if you get a chance to see it, don’t miss it.