Sunday 18 August 2013

As Is

Finborough Theatre, London


Written by William M. Hoffman
Directed by Andrew Keates

Tom Colley and David Poynor

William M. Hoffman wrote and set As Is in New York City in the early 1980s. AIDS was relatively newly emerged and as Hoffman witnessed some of those around him succumbing to the illness, so he documented his interpretation of the time in this play. The story introduces us to Rich, a writer, recently diagnosed with the disease. His ex-boyfriend and as we are to learn, true love Saul, manifests a profound friendship and love for his former partner and the play tracks Rich’s decline through a combination of flashback sequences and contemporaneous exchanges with friends and family.

Acclaimed when it opened off Broadway 28 years ago, As Is moved on to Broadway within weeks, but time has not been kind to the piece. Notwithstanding outstanding acting and direction, whilst the play is a fine and sound history lesson, as a credible dramatic vehicle its structure is at times clich├ęd. Its depiction of aspects of the gay club scene pre-epidemic, seem cursory and sensational and when Rich speaks of sex on a tombstone in Marrrakech, it begs the question, “So what?”

As Is becomes a whirl of Rich’s experiences as the disease takes hold, including the horrendous prejudices to which he is exposed, but these moments flit by as if the author is trying to cram as many reference points into 90 minutes as is possible. Whilst the play nobly informs and educates it skims a very wide surface, rarely achieving much sympathetic or empathetic depth with its characters. Tom Colley’s Rich is undoubtedly a powerful and draining performance, but in the final act, hospitalised and dying, the actor physically bears too much of a resemblance to his own real rude health rather than an ashen diseased man, to convince us of his plight. A consequence of Rich's incongruously healthy appearance is that the gallows humour with which Hoffman has deliberately peppered his play, appears to resemble more of an ill-conceived comedy routine, rather than the desperation of someone facing death. And when Rich goes on to contemplate suicide, Hoffman sets out an argument that had been far better addressed when Brian Clark tackled the thorny question of the right to die in Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Andrew Keates’ interpretation is as slick and perceptive as the writing’s formulaic structure will allow. David Poynor is a credibly compassionate Saul, and Jordan Bernarde as Rich’s brother, torn between a wife terrified of her brother-in-law’s illness and his own love for his dying sibling, offers a rare moment of poignancy. Whilst the play may be dated, with HIV/AIDS remaining a current major global health concern, Keate’s beautifully performed production holds a valid significance today.

Runs until 31st August

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