Originally published on Exeunt
The actors don’t have character names. They aren’t needed; blank faces in a crowd. To begin with, they even blend into the background. They are no one until they step forward to tell their story. But Jodi Gray’s script is more than the names of those affected, it is those with affection; for each other; for themselves. Ben Buratta directs an artistic piece that breaks down what it is truly like to live as a gay, lesbian or transgender person with HIV.
Gray writes a series of disparate sketches that are bound by their subject material. As a funny and honest conversation about HIV, there is an initial concern that the production will be nothing more than short, snappy segments seemingly repeated verbatim from interviews. The concept is never in doubt – it hits its audience between the eyes like a sledgehammer. But when composed of disjointed parts, the key lies in the ability to bind them together and give the overall show a direction, a relevance, an arc. Buratta uses a combination of artistic techniques to reduce the risk of becoming disconnected with the material. Affection is all about the effect, a constant onslaught of perceptions that overwhelms the brain until there is no way not to engage in the debate around HIV and the people that it both infects and affects.
Iain Syme’s constant video projection onto the walls skips between skin and serum, humanity and clinical explanation. The intention is clear and ties in with Harry Whitham’s overall design for the play, a colour palette of earthy tones that ground what could potentially be an academic exercise. As Dominic Kennedy’s percussive interludes echo through the basement theatre, the sounds seep into everyone’s bones, a constant, pulsating rhythm that relentlessly pushes the boundaries and challenges that which unfolds upon the stage. It is this combination of devices that seek to glue the isolated incidences together, each interaction highlighting a particular stigma, miscommunication or misunderstanding around living with HIV. Sometimes these segues are smooth, sometimes they are fragmented, jerky and fleeting – brief thoughts and ideas that immediately spring to mind only to be lost again, flashes of emotion that the friends, family and those afflicted must encounter at some point on their journey into the unknown.
The scenes themselves are wide-ranging – men meet in clubs and have to disclose their condition, or equally choose not to until after they have had their fun. Revealing that they are HIV positive is the modern day equivalent of leprosy it seems, Aiden Crawford can’t get away fast enough as soon as Josh Enright comes clean. On the flip-side, Gavin Duff doesn’t see the need to tell Conor Gormally since he is undetectable, low viral loads that render the chances of transmission highly unlikely. Is Gormally’s reaction justified, his horror and revulsion at having had sex with someone so untouchable? As a contrast to these, Barry Fitzgerald and Elijah W Harris’ romantically awkward date has the opposite outcome – Fitzgerald is HIV positive, Harris is transgender, both appreciating the differences in each other. Do both parties have to be considered ‘different’ in order to get along? Affection doesn’t require an answer to these questions, merely the act of posing them is enough.
The most intense emotional sketches are, unsurprisingly, those that deal with death. Gormally attempts to practice a eulogy to his boyfriend in front of mother Rebecca Crankshaw, who is desperate to remove any trace of homosexuality and HIV from her now-departed son’s memory. The archaic 1980s stigma of being gay and living with HIV is still very much prevalent. Duff speaks to his past love Crawford, divulges to him that he has met someone else and feels wracked with guilt about moving on. If Duff learns to be happy and in love again, does that negate the memory of Crawford entirely? In these scenes the power of Gray’s writing comes to the fore.
Affection is successful because the production value doesn’t reveal any weak link, any vulnerability. This is saved for the subject material, which reignites a conversation in order to bring it back into public focus. It isn’t indulgent, it isn’t stereotypical, it says what it has to and leaves the conclusion there for the audience to draw themselves.