William M. Hoffman's hard-hitting play receives a revival at the Finborough Theatre, the first London production for over 25 years
As Is explores the AIDS pandemic of 1980s New York, when men and women began to contract, and subsequently die of, the disease. Known as the 'gay plague', it becomes increasingly clear in this play how far we have come in our understanding of the condition. Whereas in the 1980s gay men were stigmatized and vilified for being 'infected' with HIV, and thought to be contagious, today, in the main, there is a little more sympathy and acceptance.
The story centres on AIDS sufferer Richard, played with enthusiasm by Tom Colley. Going through the stages of denial, bartering, anger, and so on, Richard and his ex-lover Saul (whose stillness made him one of the more effective performers in the cast) reminisce about their relationship, provide one another with strength, and must renegotiate their roles as Richard's demise becomes more apparent.
Andrew Keates' production utilizes a Greek chorus as an ensemble that is meant to provide the tone or mood; but lurking in the background, the other actors are actually very distracting as they constantly change costume, mimic some of the actors in the foreground, and laugh along at some of their jokes. There is so much movement, rustling, and talking over one another that it becomes difficult to focus, and much of the poignancy of some of the more important and interesting relationships - Richard and Saul, Richard and his brother - is lost.
There is also a rather stereotypical edge to this production (cue lots of men taking their tops off and grinding with each other), which makes the scene look a little cheap. The seedier it looks, the less we care about the protagonists.
That said, there is much to appreciate in As Is. The seriousness of AIDS, and the swiftness with which it was and still is manifest, is horrifying, and there are some lovely moments of calm and quiet resignation between the actors, which speak volumes. Without the cartoon-esque elements and oddly distracting ensemble, there is a profundity that resonates, challenging the audience to place themselves in Richard's position, contemplate the fairness of it all, and fathom the meaning of life itself.
- Amy Stow
As Is continues at the Finborough until 31 August