Saturday, August 21, 2010

Theatre Review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Shaw Theatre

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
by Bill Russell and Janet Hood

Shaw Theatre, London, 10-28 August 2010
directed by John-Jackson Almond
musical director Michael Roulston

Reviewed by Richard Canning

This revival of the song cycle by Bill Russell and Janet Hood (which first ran at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington in 1992, but received its world premiere in 1989) must come as a surprising choice – if only because nowadays we know all too well that trying to promote any work of art concerned with the AIDS epidemic is beyond a Sisyphean adventure. The Shaw Theatre is to be applauded, then, for having the conviction to go ahead, setting aside commercial considerations and tackling what is very much a less-heard and seen subject today.

One of the four original singers reprises her role: Miquel Brown – mother of Sinitta, but also fondly remembered by gay men for 1980s Hi-Energy classics such as So Many Men, So Little Time - once again sings as Angela. She is joined by Jonathan Hellyer (playing Brian), a.k.a. the Dame Edna Experience, making his London theatre debut, Leon Lopez (as Doug), and Anna Mateo (as Judith). Hellyer does a great job of his “own” chief song, And the Rain Keeps Falling Down, but is a more subdued stage presence than anyone who has seen him doing cabaret at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern would suspect. Lopez and Mateo in particular are very strong vocally, as well as demonstrating a stage presence which, inevitably, not all of the thirty cast members playing the smaller roles can match (though Titti La Camp as a drag queen is a definite exception).

The aim of the piece – a combination of songs and monologues - is to pay tribute to all those lost to the AIDS epidemic, by virtue of retelling the life stories (and, inevitably, in part, death stories) of thirty people who succumb to it. Each participant is thus given a few minutes on stage to tell it from his or her point of view. The actors then remain on stage, witnessing the other contributions and continuing to inhabit their roles.

The first thing to concede is that the cumulative effect of hearing so many diverse tales of loss, prejudice, deceit and ill fortune is as moving now as it was 17 years ago. That does not prevent me from feeling, however, that the status and purpose of the piece today is not fully clear. Russell has written new monologues for this revival, a good number of which take us, logically enough, to the non-Western terrains with which we now associate the most devastating human experiences of the syndrome. Some are very effective, even taking advantage of moments of winning humour – as when a South African woman begins her monologue with the words: ‘The only thing worse than a man is a politician.’ The conceptual difficulty, however, is, of course, that the original production of Elegies was conceived at a time when the lack of effective treatments for HIV/AIDS had left those turning HIV-positive with few expectations other than their short- or medium-term demise. The drug treatments which would act therapeutically to minimize HIV’s destructive effect upon immune systems rolled out unevenly, but from the USA in 1996, and across Europe in the following years.

The new monologues in Elegies articulated on stage successfully move on the production’s accommodation of the epidemiological reality today, but by introducing the subject of drug treatments, and their uneven presence in different global contexts, it makes the “unadjusted” tales here – those penned in 1993, which inevitably make no reference to drug treatments - feel historical. Thus, the thirty characters listen to, and respond to, a huge variety of reminiscences, but the audience becomes aware that these couldn’t, or didn’t, inhabit the same chronological context.

It’s a small quibble, certainly, since theatre can, and should, be able to remake the world, showing it to us anew. Still, it made me aware of another reservation I felt: that the integrity of each story, with one following the other, interrupted after each block of four or five by the next song, did not help make the evening feel fundamentally dramatic. Conflict and argument have, naturally, played a central role in many or most AIDS dramas, from early candidates such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William Hoffmann’s As Is (both 1985), through to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) and British dramatist Jonathan Harvey’s two epidemic-related works, Hushabye Mountain (1999) and the recent Canary (almost a pastiche of Kushner). In the case of Elegies, however, the evening’s raisons d’etre – to celebrate the diversity of lives lost; to counteract shame, prejudice and secrecy; to offer the broadest range of perspectives on the syndrome – are all worthwhile.

But there is an inevitable simplicity of message, in consequence. It might be summed up as “positivity.” Certainly it is threatened, just for one moment, by the case of the muscle-boy addicted to Crystal Meth, who admits to knowingly exposing numerous online partners to HIV. (A very topical moment, this, given the ongoing trial in Germany of a pop singer with AIDS who is alleged to have failed to communicate her HIV-status to sexual partners). But before and after him, the subtext of the evening seems to involve undifferentiated celebration – as in one of the song titles, Heroes all Around. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with this. It’s just that it can feel like the audience is witnessing a self-help group, rather than being inducted into the uncertainties and complexities which theatrical narrative can offer.

The monologues themselves – rendered in verse - are somewhat uneven, though the best have the same lyrical directness and honesty as the dramatic poems in Thom Gunn’s extraordinary collection, The Man with Night Sweats. A shopaholic girl was especially winning, summarizing her post-diagnosis take on life thus: ‘If spending makes you feel alive, die before the bills arrive!’ The songs, meanwhile, are delivered with enthusiasm and accomplishment. The best can certainly hold a candle to those found in West End musicals embracing much more conservative storylines. The only really wrong note is struck by the unaccountable decision to have the production wrap up with a few lines (only) of Miquel Brown singing the disco anthem So Many Men, So Little Time as the entire cast leaves the stage. Certainly, it’s a vintage tune, invoking a particular time period and gay subculture very strongly. But its lyric – written with explicit appeal for sexually busy gay men in the early 1980s – threatens to complicate, even overshadow the clear steer towards plurality and diversity in the preceding two hours, as well as, rather bafflingly, to take the audience back to a specific and historical moment at the show’s close; a time, perhaps, before which any of these losses would have taken place.

Still, this is a committed (and huge!) cast, performing for free, and The Terrence Higgins Trust is benefitting from every ticket sale. There’s plenty to think about here, and many moments to savour.

Richard Canning. Canning’s edition of AIDS fiction, Vital Signs (2008), is available from Da Capo Press.

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