STATUS is the culmination of interviews with people living with, affected by and associated with HIV/AIDS. Affiliated with the World AIDS Conference 2014 which is currently taking place in Melbourne, STATUS elucidates the complexities of living with HIV in 2014 with honesty and compassion, whilst revealing and challenging the debilitating stigma that positive people continue to endure on a daily basis.
Performed over 60 minutes in the fittingly intimate Fairfax Studio in the Arts Centre, the four actors comprising STATUS – Kath Gordon, Matt Hickey, Will Conyers and Brigid Gallacher – each voice numerous and varied real life experiences with HIV, amounting to a dramatic collage of disparate, yet ultimately discerning, personal narratives. Each actor displayed masterful control and a remarkable array of emotions, shifting between characters with the skill only seasoned professionals possess.
Kath Gordon delivered a stand-out performance, and her commitment to each character was palpable. Her role as a carer for a blind HIV sufferer whose mother brings his younger brothers to visit him on weekends, decked out in face masks and gowns, was played with great conviction and compassion. The euthanasia narrative performed by stage stalwart Will Conyers was a beautiful ode to a friend lost to HIV, and easily one of the most memorable scenes. The highly personal nature of Conyers' performance added to the scene's poignancy, and his imitation of a dying friend's last words had the audience simultaneously in stitches whilst wiping away tears. Brigid Gallacher's moving depiction of a young woman who contracts HIV after giving blood was another memorable moment; whilst the story highlighted the importance of the availability of mental health services alongside medical attention for HIV patients, the character's fragility packed an emotional punch. Last but certainly not least, Matt Hickey's roles might have seemed the most diverse, yet this was most likely because of the physicality of his acting; truly embodying each distinct character, Hickey's performance was both highly captivating and believable.
The dramatic script, combined with the mutability of the actors, was effectively juxtaposed with the bareness of the set and the monologues. With few prop changes and only faint segue music between scenes, the production aspects of the play are extremely subtle, with basic costumes, transitions, lighting and set ensuring no distraction from the strong dialogue and powerful performances. The intimate venue and predominantly conversational monologues have an inclusive effect; it's almost as if the characters are revealing their stories directly to you.
It is, paradoxically, the anonymity of the stories told that strengthens emotional investment. The characters have no names, ages, and are mostly gender-less, reinforcing that the experience of HIV is ultimately a human one, not isolated to specific individuals or to the traditional HIV stereotypes of gay men and prostitutes. This overt rejection of stereotypes and varied unidentified stories renders a generic view of the HIV sufferer impossible: each character's trajectory after receiving a HIV positive diagnosis is completely unique and, ultimately, isolated. Thus, the central theme of solidarity in the face of prejudice and stigma is paralleled by one of isolation. From overt stigmatisation in society, to the challenges of dating, to not being able to open up even to one's own family; whilst the stigma faced collectively by the HIV community is extremely disturbing, perhaps it is the stigma sufferers feel towards themselves that is the most crippling.
And yet, as STATUS suggests, there is hope. The minimalist set is at times rearranged, parts of it even doubling as props, resulting in a jig-saw puzzle effect, and symbolically depicting how the individual real-life stories though seemingly diverse and isolated, combine to create the bigger picture that is the experience of contemporary AIDS. The play opens with a frenetic overlay of voices, each voice indistinguishable from the next as they interrupt one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to express the unique pain of their individual experience. This desperation is allowed appeasement, however, by the hour-long duration of the performance, as each individual account is rendered in all its depth and singularity on the stage. And this, for me, is at the crux of Status: the creation of an open dialogue around HIV is the only way to combat the isolation and self denigration sufferers feel on a daily basis. In the play's denouement, the chorus speaks directly to the audience in unison. The story-tellers have united through the experience of opening up, and through our willingness to listen, we are now a part of the conversation. We, as individuals and as a society, as audience members, and as actors, are all a part of the solution.
Since its global rise in the 1980's, HIV/AIDS has claimed the lives of more than 36 million people. Currently, we are facing a very real increase in the prevalence of HIV, Victoria having the second largest HIV epidemic in Australia, with particular increases amongst young women. Over a year in the making for Producers Michelle and Stephen Barber, and director Cameron Menzies, STATUS is unquestionably confronting, but very relevant, its power residing in its capacity to engender self-reflection. STATUS challenges every audience member to ask themselves: "What would I do? How would I react?" The ultimate contention, collectively voiced by all actors in the play's concluding moments, is that processes of stigmatisation are wielded as a weapon of social control, and that this may potentially always be the case. But so long as we follow in the example of STATUS and speak out against such processes, bravely and openly, the possibility remains for human compassion to override the power of stigma and discrimination.