Tuesdays mean Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy means fear, uncertainty, maybe hair loss, maybe sickness, maybe worse. Perhaps fears of illness and even of death are being translated onto the Chemotherapy, a visible enemy in place of invisible ones. Or perhaps it is merely the natural reaction of being sh*t-scared of strong doses of drug that can cause your hair to fall out. In "What Are Tuesdays Like?", playwright Victor Bumbalo tries to show us what it is like to suffer from AIDS. The play is set entirely in the hospital waiting room and (you guessed it) entirely on Tuesdays. As the patients come and go every week we watch illness impact on all aspects of their lives. A kinship develops from their common circumstance, a circumstance that slowly creates rifts between them and their lives outside of the illness.
A joint DramSoc and Medsin production, this play was performed as part of World AIDS week with proceeds going to Zisize. Before showing the play, the audience was 'teased' with a showing of some films written by young Africans. Aside from laughing at the amateur nature of the films (script and actors were all amateur and had thereafter been subjected to dubious dubbing), the films painted an interesting viewpoint of some of the problems surrounding the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the conflict fighting AIDS can sometimes have with traditions and educational doctrines. An issue not to be sniffed at, with recent advice from Health Minister of South Africa urging people to eat beetroot in the absence of retroviral drugs, but I digress. One film shown, told of a woman who had recently lost her husband to AIDS. The local custom in this village is that a widow will marry her brother in law such that he will care for her and her children so the film moved from the situation where the cause of her husband's death was being ignored at the risk of infecting all the wives of the brother in law, to that where they both agreed to HIV tests and he agreed to take care of her regardless of the result. And they all lived happily ever after, or not.
"What are Tuesdays Like?" is much less 'sugar-sweet' and idealistic, thus making it somewhat more believable. The cast were strong and aside from occasional moments, no character was unconvincing. They were not helped by the fact that the play is divided into many short scenes and, despite efforts to overcome it, this did disrupt the flow, particularly when the emotional tone varied greatly from one scene to the next while the characters involved did not. Victor Bumbalo seems to have placed the enigmatic Howard Salvo as a sort of 'glue' to hold the play together and carry it and where required to do so Alex Arbuthnot (who played Howard) rose to the challenge admirably. The rest of the cast must be praised for making sure he never had to for very long. Mr Arbuthnot did a good job of the difficult, the slightly enigmatic and slightly eccentric. He did, however, occasionally give in to the temptation to overact towards the end when Howard is in the very advanced stages of the disease and close to death, occasionally assuming unconvincing postures. Admittedly, this is an extremely difficult thing to act convincingly without physical training (of the theatrical variety). I found Amadeus Stevenson (who played Gene) unfalteringly convincing. Arul Murugan (Scott) appeared as if he might have benefited from having more than one performance since he was doing exactly the right sort of thing but needed to be a bit more confident and relaxed in doing so. Oliver Todd (playing Jeff Ferris) was great. A couple of his more emotional monologues needed ramping up a bit more slowly but after a brief shaky start he soon drew the audience in and it became convincing that it was Jeff Ferris overacting to the other patients in the waiting room rather than Oliver Todd acting to the audience, and thus built atmosphere rather than broke it.
The production was set in a lecture theatre in Huxley with black cloth strung up to create wing-space and some chairs and a table comprising the entire set. The lecture theatre's own lights provided adequate lighting for the scale of production and size of the room. Although I suspect the small scale of the production is probably more due to budget constraints than artistic decision, it seems to strike a chord with the programme notes which say that, "AIDS compresses everything; strips away the unessential". In any case, the set was adequate and served the cast well.
At first it felt somehow jarring to be torn from the world of small African villages debating the issues of HIV testing and condom use in a very traditional society to a London hospital where (mostly) homosexuals were being treated with large doses of strong drugs. The dichotomy of two cultures that on the surface are very different but are both deeply affected by AIDS. In common with both the play and the films is the theme of prejudice and social taboos surrounding the illness and the problems this brings, in addition to those relating directly to ill health itself. In the films this was linked in with gender discrimination and in the play it was linked to homophobic prejudices. The films and the play were thought provoking and entertaining. From a very personal point of view, this is one of the best plays I have seen at Imperial, however my bias towards both serious issue and low budget productions should probably be borne in mind when I say this.