In a dimly-lit basement a naked figure exercises at a bar, each pull-up needing more effort than the last, but it is clear that this is an important ritual for him. His exercise over, we see him joined by a girl known to him but not – yet – sharing his fate. Torch is infected with a nameless disease and has been quarantined by a repressive state which is attempting to control the infection. Blue pretends to be infected in order to meet with her lover; although the nature of the disease means that their relationship is bounded by concerns about infection.
Beirut was written in San Francisco in 1986 and clearly inspired by what was then the beginning stages of the AIDS epidemic, although there is no reference to AIDS/HIV by name in the piece. This is the second play revived from the 1980s that I have reviewed in the last week and once again, there have been many changes affecting the subject. AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was, but other diseases are emerging and, as the programme note reminds us, we need to decide how to respond, as individuals and as states.
Beirut runs for around an hour in the Park 90 studio theatre, but feels shorter, as it builds an impetus that pulls the audience into the action. On Liz Ascroft’s rubbish-strewn set with blood-red outlines we see the two central characters circling warily around each other, aware that the greater their commitment to each other, the greater the risks they take – with the infection and with the monitoring authorities.
Apart from a brief appearance by a guard from the Lesion Squad, this is a two-hander and acted with great sincerity and commitment. As Blue, Louisa Connolly-Burnham is by turns seductive and confrontational, her true feelings only apparent when she encounters the guard (Simon Mendes da Costa) checking for infections. This is a carefully considered performance, not perhaps totally convincing as as a streetwise inhabitant of NYC but emotionally true to the character.
Opposite her, Robert Rees as Torch is by turns aggressive and vulnerable. The physicality of his performance is emblematic of his bodily struggle with the virus that threatens to erupt at any moment. The detail and commitment of the central performances are matched by the direction of Robin Lefevre who handles this difficult material with confidence and authority.
Why revive Beirut now? Well, partly of course, as the programme reminds us, because there are always new diseases emerging and responses needed. Perhaps another reason is in the nature of the response portrayed in this play. We did not, in fact, see a repressive response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s; in most countries, at least, those infected were not locked up or controlled, and understanding gradually replaced fear. Would it be the same now, however, in Trump’s America? The idea of locking up the infected suddenly seems all too plausible.