We Were There holds an audience with humour and warmth, asking one to approach it, and the world, with humanity and empathy.
We Were There is a verbatim theatre piece comprised of interviews from 15 women living with or who have worked with people living with HIV and AIDS. It is a rare privilege to listen to the knowledge, struggles, emotions and opinions shared by the interviewees. Stories from nurses working in Fairfield hospital when people were first being diagnosed with HIV, from the first woman (at least in Victoria) to be diagnosed, from scientists, from volunteers, from many others diagnosed with or involved in the care of people with HIV and AIDS, are stories I have not heard before. These stories enrich and enlarge an understanding of the history of stigma around and treatment of HIV in the 80s and 90s, and of current ideas and community attitudes. They stand as a testament to the bravery of those who were there, to the many who lost their lives and to the continuing work done in improving treatment, prevention and community perception.
Tilted Projects’ skilful piecing together of the variety of opinions, facts and anecdotes taken from the interviews presents a complex picture of pain, humour, confusion, community and loss. The text leans into a clear focus on dramatic moments or confessions before deftly maneuvering into different emotional and intellectual fields. This handling of the different anecdotes holds the audience suspended between laughter and tears, shifting the spotlight on different facets of a complex constellation of knowledge and experience while keeping a constant awareness of the largeness of the picture they are drawing from.
However, the multitude of voices explored is confusing at times, especially when character differentiation isn’t consistently handled and the focus on different voices is inconsistent. This confusion does though have moments of payoff, where stories that at first seem unclear and muddled are revisited later with greater clarity, as is the case with the story of a particular patient at Fairfield, thus resulting in heightened moments of suspense and satisfaction.
The performances by Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Olivia Monticciolo and Jodie Le Vesconte are, for the most part, consistently engaging and moving, with the performers being most absorbing when they are given space to simply and matter-of-factly perform the words. In particular, Le Vesconte is transfixing in the work and portrays the voices with a gripping energy and genuine warmth.
The stylised physicality and stagecraft at times takes away from the text without enhancing it. Emotionally complex anecdotes are accompanied by slow synchronised movements that while at times can be a visually interesting complement to what is being said, more often distract from the beautiful simplicity and rawness of the words. The choreographed nature of these sequences seems at odds with the freshness of the verbatim text and their symbolic function in the work feels simplistic when paired with the complexity and nuance of the stories told. Physical theatre and stylised movement within textual works can hugely enhance and add complex physical layers to what is being discussed, and these movement sequences do add an embodied element to the work. In particular, synchronised torch-work and gesture used to create an unnerving and alienating atmosphere does really enhances text focusing on medical perspectives. However, in general the movement often feels abstract and impersonal which is jarring when paired with the personal and specific text. The set and costumes are visually exciting and functional, though at times obvious symbolism in these elements also feels jarring.
We Were There is a space of learning, of listening and of sharing. It is a heartfelt and honest piecing together of a complex picture of facts, experiences and emotions surrounding HIV and AIDS. Despite it at times involving uncomfortable movement or stagecraft moments, an audience is always impressed by the rare gift that is this work. Presented with humour and warmth, We Were There is a genuine act of sharing and a testament to the bravery and strength of the women interviewed.