The writers of The Chemsex Monologues wrote another complex series of orations on the issue, but with a contemporary twist. Watched by an enthusiastic crowd at The National Gallery Theatre, The HIV Monologues was a hit.
The devastating effect of HIV/AIDs is arguably one of the most difficult stories to tell, and tell right. Writer Patrick Cash and director Luke Davies took a simple approach, letting the characters speak for themselves. The stories of four men and a woman directly or indirectly affected by the virus are intricately intertwined in a way that takes us through time.
The first monologue is by a young actor called Alex, played by Denholm Spurr, who quickly falls for Nick on a first date, but is shocked when he finds out he is HIV positive. He quickly escapes the date, but then lands a theatre role that teaches him what HIV/AIDs really is and he re-connects with Nick and is able to build a relationship.
The writing is not preachy or miserable. There is a great deal of laughter with Alex’s antics and complete lack of self-awareness. Cash’s character development feels human and organic, leaving behind most stereotypes and taking on a major issue in the LGBT+ community: HIV/AIDs awareness. It may be surprising to some, but Alex’s incredibly prejudiced and ill-informed attitude to HIV is not uncommon. And his portrayal is interesting in that it shows his flaws, but his comedy humanises him. This makes you realise that stigmatic attitudes towards the disease is something that can be prevalent in even the most nice and normal of people. The journey Alex goes through to become educated makes him stronger, but Cash did not shy away from the damage such attitudes cause to those they are directed at.
Equally, Nick, who is played by Kane Surrey, is not a shallow portrayal of someone with HIV. He’s not a cliché inspirational icon or a syrupy tragedy. He is a human being who is attempting to come to terms with his condition, and on top of that trying to understand how to now navigate his dating life. His reaction to Alex’s hurtful rejection was a rollercoaster of emotions.
Straddling time zones provide a crucial glance into the painful past of the disease, offering the audience snapshots of the battle against homophobia and strides towards hope in a time of crisis. Charly Flyte’s performance as Irene, a delightful Irish Catholic nurse, was particularly gut-wrenching. One scene where she verbally knocks down a Daily Mail reporter for telling her “You should be ashamed!” is brilliantly tear inducing. Playing Barney, a writer who was saved by medication in the nineties, is Jonathon Blake. Putting forward a moving and soothing performance for The HIV Monologues, Blake was one of the first people to be diagnosed with the virus in Britain and later became an avid campaigner.
One aspect audience members may find divisive is the rather explicit sex scene, which may be awkward to watch depending on who you go with. There is the argument that a positive sex scene in the context of HIV is essential as sex with HIV positive partners is still somewhat taboo.
Davies brings the script to life with his direction. The timeline follows a winding trail from “Gay Plague!” headlines to this current period with PrEP, and while it is full of laughter and hope, it does not shy away from the very real prejudices that are still aimed at HIV positive people even today. The HIV Monologues is a crucial piece of LGBT+ theatre and has a vital part in the discussion of social stigmas faced by the HIV positive community.