The fear and ignorance around AIDS that existed in the 1980s was palpable. That it has largely dissipated now, at least in the West, is thanks to tireless work by campaigners and educators who resolutely faced down those who would seek to demonise people with HIV.
Alan Bowne’s Beirut, written in those times, imagines a future where, rather than disappearing, the prejudice becomes the rule of law. In his vision of New York, a region of the city has become a quarantine zone, to where anyone who has been diagnosed as “blood positive” is shipped, after having been tattooed to identify their status.
Bowne himself died in 1989, just two years after his play’s off-Broadway debut. And so he is not here to explain why, when the AIDS crisis of the time was predominantly affecting gay men, the couple at the heart of Beirut are heterosexual.
Perhaps it did, at the very least, encourage a wider audience to put themselves in the shoes of a serodiscordant couple who are struggling to establish how their relationship can survive when one partner has contracted an incurable fatal disease – for that is the relationship at the heart of Beirut.
Robert Rees’s Torch is blood-positive, but asymptomatic: none of the tell-tale lesions are visible on his naked form, with which we are presented at several points throughout. His girlfriend Blue (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) sneaks into the quarantine zone with a fake tattoo applied, so that she can see him. But while it is clear that Torch has researched the disease to the extent that he knows all the possible transmission vectors and is keen to prevent infecting his girlfriend, Blue’s behaviour is more reckless: in Torch’s eyes, she is letting her lust supersede the risk.
Even in the early 2000s, when I was working on an LGBT website (although it called itself LGB, and was really only G), and with the prospect of full HIV suppression through drug regimes was still only at the research stage, there was much prejudice between HIV-negative and HIV-positive gay men. So many HIV+ people were basically assumed that they must live a life of rigidly enforced celibacy: media reports at the time were always reporting on HIV infection as if it were criminal, that someone who was positive should burden the responsibility for anyone they had the temerity to have sex with.
I remember speaking to one HIV campaigner who talked about how some negative members of a serodiscordant couple could feel a strong need to share their partner’s infection – and even if one might think that a reckless decision, one could at leats understand the emotional element of such a choice. And at the same time, everybody else’s sex lives were being frowned upon: the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s had seen a reinforcement of puritanical views.
And so the realities of attitudes which Beirut converts into metaphor are still resonant with me. Perhaps that’s why Bowne’s choices lessen the play’s potential impact for me. The real world was so much fuller of scares that this allegorical world seems to be a tamed version of it, the edges chamfered off.
That the play still works is down to the central couple. Rees’s Bronx Italian accent feels like it still needs rather more work than does Connolly-Burnham’s spunky Queens brogue (there’s more than a touch of Cyndi Lauper in her voice). Together, their dynamic feels authentic and believable for the most part.
Where that falls down is in several jarring changes of mood, as the couple bicker, spar and eroticise each other over the course of the play’s one hour. Director Robin Lefevre does not always seem able to establish why his characters’ motivations chop and change so much.
What the actors are able to achieve is a comfort with their own bodies and each others’ that feels passionately and erotically believable – although in the Park 90’s small studio space, it can also feel a little too intimate, especially when Connolly-Burnham’s Blue is humiliated by the (largely off-stage) security guard (Simon Mendes da Costa) who commands her to strip, convinced that she is blood-positive and therefore worthless except to fuel his fantasies.
At the end, Bowne presents an interesting conflict between the two lead characters: for Torch, love is keeping Blue from the inevitable painful death that his disease always brings; for her, love is seeing him through it regardless of the risk to herself.
That is the truest part of Bowne’s fantasy. Is it enough to make it a great play? No. But it is enough to make Beirut’s place in the history of HIV representation on stage, however metaphorical, worthy of a revival.
Beirut continues at Park Theatre until 7 July.