The stories of Australian women touched by the HIV/AIDS crisis are told in this new play
While HIV remains a serious chronic illness in Australia, it’s easy to forget just how horrific and deadly it was in that first decade. Most of the community’s focus has been on the men, particularly gay men, who were dying of the disease; the experience of women who were suffering from infection, as well as those who cared for sufferers, has largely gone unspoken. We Were There, a piece of verbatim theatre that finally puts these female perspectives on stage, seems long overdue.
Collating an enormous amount of material from disparate sources, writer and director Dirk Hoult has fashioned a compelling alternative vision of the coming of AIDS in this country. With a cast of four (Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Jodie Levesconte, Olivia Monticciolo) he manages to include nurses, doctors, scientists and patients in a narrative that often feels like it belongs in a horror film. An unknown illness that was referred to as GRID, or Gay-related immune deficiency, it hit the medical profession as hard as it did the gay community. One professional believes that most people were suffering from PTSD as a result of their work in the field.
It’s not hard to understand why: with the sheer number of people dying; modern medicine’s utter lack of preparedness in fighting, or even treating, the disease; and the awful nature of the deaths involved, those early years must have felt like living in a war zone. Hoult intersplices testimonies to create a palpable sense of the hopelessness and confusion that existed in those early years. It has the added effect of widening the scope, as if the entire country’s experience were embedded in these women’s responses.
Verbatim theatre always has to face a central problem: human speech is rarely inherently dramatic. When we speak in real life, even in interviews, we tend to muffle our words, stop sentences midway and backtrack on our thoughts. Hoult has decided to include every pause, every stutter and correction his interviewees made, which is a challenge for his actors. Levesconte and Baulch handle this best, effortlessly folding the quirks of speech into their characters. Cummings struggles with this most, coming across as stilted and hesitant. It’s the meticulous weaving of voices, however, that really binds the piece together, and represents a remarkable feat of adaptation.
The work stylises movement, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Actors move chairs around a lot, which seems like a concession to the dramatic limitations of verbatim theatre, but does serve to highlight each actor’s contribution. More successful is the group work, medical staff tilting the black chairs forward in waves as if shuffling off their patients into death. Alexandra Hiller’s design is dominated by a huge billowing white inflatable shape, that may or may not represent a white blood cell, or the disease itself. It shifts and moves about, but isn’t as effective as it might have been.
A female perspective on Australia’s AIDS crisis could easily sound like the sort of community project that is more important to the participants than to an audience, but in practice it is a compelling and sobering experience. There is little to no judgement in these testimonies, and while the bewildering horror of that early onset is powerfully conveyed, the ultimate effect is one of acceptance and empowerment. These truly were and are amazing women, and it’s a joy to hear their words honoured.