There’s something almost ridiculously dystopian about Beirut, which is nothing to do with Beirut really, but is the informal name given to some sort of secure facility in New York where people who have tested ‘positive’ for a dangerous mutation of HIV are detained, away from the rest of society.
Neither ‘HIV’ nor ‘AIDS’ appear anywhere in the script: this is something even worse. It can be reasonably assumed that such positives, so to speak, such as Torch (Robert Rees), have a strain of the virus that is resistant to various medications. Not all medicines are ineffective. Whatever it is that Torch takes, it seems to slow down the increasingly debilitating effects of the syndrome.
Torch’s girlfriend, Blue (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) jumps through whatever hoops she needs to jump through in order to visit him: visitors are not, as a general rule, allowed, such is the grave risk of contamination. “You shouldn’t even be touching me!” Torch almost barks. Increasing trepidation and plain ignorance in this futuristic society has caused whatever form of government still exists to enforce laws to this effect. It’s rather like the lepers of the Old Testament, who had to live outside city boundaries, and yell ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ to anyone who happened to be walking along. Touch a leper, and one was also considered ‘unclean’ and unfit to live amongst the local community.
Here, the law enforcer, the unimaginatively titled The Guard (Simon Mendes da Costa), having discovered Blue in Torch’s room during a routine search, demands things from Blue that were morally dubious when the play was first performed in 1986, let alone in 2018. After this, an off-stage incident means The Guard’s presence is required elsewhere. In what is probably one of the most underwritten parts I have ever come across, he is not to be seen again until the curtain call, such that one is left wondering whether the inclusion of The Guard was even necessary.
That scene serves its purpose, I suppose, in reinforcing what Torch has been saying to Blue: you need to get out of here, you shouldn’t be here, and if you would do anything for me, and I’ve asked you to go, why are you still here? For Blue to go at Torch’s initial instruction would, however, have made for an even shorter play that the one that this one is (at just under an hour it’s Edinburgh Fringe friendly). Blue is no shrinking violet, and the chemistry between the pair is highly convincing.
The dystopian world vision goes on – there is, apparently, no such thing as Hollywood anymore, in the sense that the movie industry is but a shadow of its former self; sporting fixtures no longer take place and all those nightclubs in city centres have closed down. No wonder Blue would rather stay with her boyfriend and remain outside the community at large. There are some good examples of physical theatre that work on more than one level. At face value, it’s the rough and tumble of a couple indulging in bedroom activity. On a deeper level, Torch’s body is a sort of prison and Blue’s is a sort of gun, pointed at Torch; under pressure, Torch relents and accedes to the gunman’s (or, rather, gunwoman’s) demands.
An intriguing, if provocative, demonstration of the power of love, the play raises more questions than it answers, perhaps deliberately. More time and energy is given to giving a full picture of how awful and unjust the world at large has become than about the characters themselves: how much does the audience really find out about this couple? This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and the show could also have done with a few more moments of comic relief.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Torch has been quarantined in a dark, squalid room on the Lower East Side of New York City, which the locals refer to as “Beirut” after testing positive for a nameless disease. Torch passes the time alone, forbidden from contact with the outside world.
His girlfriend, Blue, makes the dangerous journey across the quarantine line to be with him. Torch tries to keep her at arm’s length and they argue lovingly, jokingly, fearfully, bravely, and desperately about sex and death. All the while, Torch pleads with Blue to leave before his resistance fails….
The UK revival of Beirut by American playwright and author Alan Bowne is at Park Theatre from 12th June to 7th July 2018. Written in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis (which the playwright died of at 44 years old), Beirut is a cutting examination of a society ravaged by a nameless disease. Although written at a particular moment in history, the play transcends the issues of its time, and at its heart is a dark love story, questioning how society deals with the ‘abnormal’ in a society gone mad with fear and ignorance. The issues explored are particularly relevant to 2018, when viruses such as Sars and Zika are prominent, and with an increasing and inevitable resistance to antibiotics.
The production is directed by New York Drama Desk Award winner, Robin Lefevre and stars Louisa Connolly-Burnham and Robert Rees.
Park 90, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP
19th June to 7th July 2018