Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Put off by the words ‘Infection’ and ‘Monologues’? Don’t be – this funny, sensitive and theatrical piece has none of the heavy-handed didacticism of conventional ‘issue drama’, nor the maudlin tedium of the worst kinds of monologue theatre. This is a compelling collection of stories woven into a finely-wrought text, classily delivered by a cohesive ensemble. As the programme says, ‘The Infection Monologues is not a 1 hour sex education lesson’: it is a frank, probing, non-judgemental and comic examination of the reality of living with HIV in 2011, a positive play about being HIV positive.
The Edinburgh premiere of a play that has been adapted and rewritten for new places and times (San Francisco in 2005, Seattle in 2010 and London in 2011) – this is very much written for and about UK society in 2011. The text blends direct address with dialogues, and discussions between characters, becoming more of a group performance as the play develops. It is an effective mixture: the monologues reveal the characters’ own experiences and reactions, and the dialogues show their interactions with the rest of society. For example, a monologue about a character’s reactions to his diagnosis – ‘People like me don’t get HIV, for fuck’s sake!’ – gives us an insight into his conflicting emotions, and a scene in which a character is turned down by a potential partner due to his positive status allows us to witness the stigma he experiences. Utterly relevant to the Edinburgh Fringe audience who, like the characters, are ‘the generation that isn’t supposed to get infected’ – since we have all been taught how to prevent against the virus – the writing is thoughtful, unsentimental, often sexually explicit (as befits a play that discusses ways in which HIV can be contracted) but never gratuitous, and very funny.
I was apprehensive at first, seeing how young the cast was: they are all a good deal younger than the characters they are portraying, which makes for a slightly uneasy start. Their lack of training is really only visible, however, in a single technical flaw: many of them talk too fast, though this lessens as the play develops from monologues to shorter speeches and dialogues. Pretty soon their age doesn’t signify at all, as they are captivating and confident performers with excellent comic delivery, who have been tightly and thoughtfully directed by Ray Pinch. They have developed a solid group dynamic and mutual respect as an ensemble that is so strong it is rarely seen in any company.
The Infection Monologues makes a strong and worthwhile contribution to both the genre of monologue theatre, and the genre of what, for want of a better word, I will call message drama, in that it confounds the potential negative connotations of both genres and stands unashamedly as good theatre in its own right. The writing and delivery theatricalise the monologues into engaging action, and the ‘message’ is not a simple ‘right, must go and buy some condoms and then I can forget about this play’ but a series of different and conflicting ideas and attitudes intended – successfully – to make an audience think for themselves and address their own opinions anew, as well as to entertain.
I grew up more informed than many about HIV, with a mother whose public health work in developing countries focused for many years on the virus, and I furthered this knowledge in 2006 by attending the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. Despite this prior knowledge, the play gave me new ideas and angles to think about, just as it gave new ideas to those in the audience that knew very little about HIV. I believe this is the key to the play’s success: it is not aimed at one type of person, with one single message, but assumes a range of audience members with as big a range of attitudes as those displayed by the very different characters in the play. The auditorium was only at half capacity, but the attentiveness of that group to the nine actors giving everything they could belied this: the theatre felt half full, not half empty. Several audience members cheered, others gave the play a standing ovation, and it deserves to have a bigger audience.
The only area in which The Infection Monologues falls short of its potential is the range of characters. There are eight characters, with very different backgrounds and experiences, clearly intended to show examples from the wide spectrum of HIV positive people (the characters range from a pregnant newlywed to a young man who becomes a prostitute after abuse from his father), but there are significant gaps. All the female characters contracted the virus from heterosexual sex, and all but one of the male characters from homosexual sex. There is no mention of female homosexual transmission (still one of the least-known and most taboo methods of infection), no male characters who contracted HIV from heterosexual sex, and barely a mention of intravenous drug use despite this causing a significant proportion of the HIV transmission in modern western society. This is not a theatrical flaw, but it detracts from the show’s intention to portray a wide and honest range of HIV positive characters.
I am giving The Infection Monologues 3 stars, as it is a good production, and I hope that its audience grows for its last two performances. While the gaps in the character spectrum are disappointing, they do not detract from the production’s contribution to original, thought-provoking theatre; and while the young cast talk too fast, this is a technical flaw that could be easily overcome and does not diminish their talent or the show’s success. The quality of the writing, the highly successful reinvention of two much-maligned genres, and the impeccable, enviable solidity of this talented ensemble make The Infection Monologues a production I recommend.