HIV and AIDS have been with us since the 1980s, and the disease has inspired many theatrical responses. In 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart chronicled the horrified panic of the early years and the frantic battle to secure research funding, while more recently Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance (2018) emotionally evoked the sense of a lost generation of casualties. The death toll has become totemic to the gay community – a shared grief that touches us all – and of course it was vividly documented last year in Russell T Davies’ much-lauded Channel 4 series It’s a Sin.
But the disease has moved on, and so has the rest of the world. Teenagers exploring their sexuality today were born many years after the brutal advent of AIDS, which is still with us but thankfully no longer a death sentence. So what relationship does this generation have with the disease that slaughtered so many thousands of their cultural forebears, and haunts the memories of so many survivors?
Recent graduate writer/performer Sam Buss’s semi-autobiographical one-man show Focus on the Positives tells the story of MAN and one of his romantic adventures. In a noisy nightclub, MAN spots someone he fancies, and despite his inherent timidness soon enough the age-old story begins again, as the pair make a mutual connection. Pretty soon they are in the “ish” stage: not vocalising any solid commitment but knowing that they are starting to form a new partnership.
The revelation that the new guy in MAN’s life is HIV positive presents something of a hurdle to a character who’s not sure of the ramifications of the diagnosis but is vaguely conscious of the social stigma still associated with those three letters. The education of MAN commences…
The intensely bearded Buss gives a focussed and fluid performance as MAN, and the show makes use of a number of witty props including a bed that swivels on a motorised revolve. When did you last see a revolve in a fringe theatre?! It’s impressively ambitious.
As a writer, Buss is fond of a big explicit metaphor. First we have life as a jigsaw puzzle with pieces falling into place or being appropriated by others. Next we unpack experience through the prism of pizza toppings. There’s nothing wrong with either of these as tools of interpretation, but they contribute to a sense that Focus on the Positives is about presenting information rather than using character and dialogue to dramatise a situation. In a show that also uses classroom-type posters to convey the facts of PrEP and “Undetectable = Untransmissible”, there’s a risk that we lose sight of the living, breathing people that the show is about.
That MAN’s partner isn’t present (the original plan was to have a physical performer fulfilling this role) perhaps exacerbates a feeling that the rather indistinct MAN doesn’t have much of a presence in his own story, and that the stakes aren’t quite substantial enough to encourage us to invest emotionally in his journey. But if it’s not the most involving or dramatic of narratives, Focus on the Positives nevertheless serves as a useful testament to what HIV/AIDS looks like to those finding out about it now, in a world in which the disease is potentially less deadly but still casts a dark shadow of stigma over those it touches.
Written by: Sam Buss
Directed by: Gemma Draper
Produced by: Baggage Claim Theatre
Focus on the Positives plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until July 30 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.