affection is the new london play exploring contemporary experiences of hiv

With the rate of Londoners contracting HIV on the rise in 2016, the director of a new play based on real-life experiences tells i-D that we need to change the conversation, to fight stigma and homophobia.

by Charlotte Gush
14 September 2016, 1:50pm

We need to start a positive new conversation about HIV. That's the message from the director of Affection, a new play that opened last night at one of London's most exciting queer performance art spaces, The Glory.

Four decades into the HIV crisis, a worrying trend has been measured in London, where the rate of new infections has increased in recent years, and is much higher than the UK average. Although treatment for the disease can be very effective, stigma and a lack of education about HIV has perpetuated harmful stereotypes, leading to a lack of preventative healthcare provision and often homophobic press coverage.

Affection is a new play 'about bodies, intimacy and HIV,' that has been thoroughly researched to reflect contemporary experiences of living with HIV. i-D caught up with director Ben Buratta to find out why Affection isn't a 'pity party' or a preachy PSA, but a funny and sexy show that is relevant in 2016…

Affection opened last night at The Glory. Why is now the right time for this play?
I have wanted to make a piece about living with HIV for a long time and now seemed like exactly the right time. There are more gay men than ever contracting HIV and stigma and shame continue to surround the virus. The debate over PrEP and the NHS's refusal to fund the drug has seen homophobia in the press that the public haven't witnessed since Thatcher's heyday. There is also a real lack of education around new developments in HIV and what it means to be undetectable. The Glory is the perfect venue for us as we wanted to bring an audience that aren't just your average theatre-goers.

How did you research Affection? And how did you weave the the real-life stories into the play?
I've been interviewing gay men who have been living with HIV or affected by HIV in some way for many years, so I knew that there was a wealth of rich and fascinating stories to tell. To represent these stories carries a responsibility and it felt like the company was established enough to take on this challenge. We would listen to recording as a company or read sections of the interviews and then that would inspire us to create improvisations or movement sequences. We also had some guests come in to talk to us -- men living with HIV such as the amazing Jonathan Blake who was diagnosed in 1982 (and played by Dominic West in the film Pride). We were also supported by leading clinic 56 Dean Street and charity Positive East whose staff gave us incredible advice and filled us in on all the key facts. Our main challenge was to find the heart in these stories and avoid becoming a public health announcement!

Information about Affection states that it is 'not a victim piece'. What do you mean by that, and what you were trying to avoid, or react against?
Our mission was to create a play that avoided many of the narratives that we have seen in the past -- often 'Man has sex with another man, contracts HIV/AIDS, and dies'. Being diagnosed with HIV is not the death sentence it was in the 80s and our piece needed to reflect the developments in medicine and in society since then. The men I have met who are living with HIV are among the strongest people I have ever met -- they are certainly not victims and to make a pity party of a play isn't interesting to anyone. There are so many diverse experiences out there that we wanted to make sure that the play was funny and sexy and provocative. Affection is not didactic or judgmental, at its core are human stories and it is a really beautiful visual experience.

Tell us more about the team behind the play -- how did you and playwright Jodi Gray come to collaborate?
Jodi and I actually met whilst at university and we didn't really like each other at first! We then worked together on making on adaptation of Wedekind's Spring Awakening and realised we had very similar taste in theatre and worked well together. That was over ten years ago and now we are best mates and main collaborators. It's got to the point we have a shorthand around each other and are able to work quickly and clearly with each other. Plus, I really do think she's one of the best writers around. I also have an incredible creative team, many of whom I've worked with for years, who have allowed Affection to be elevated to a really high professional standard.

If people take one thing from the play away with them, what would you like it to be? What more can and should be done to change the conversation about HIV and inspire real, positive change?
The play was made in order to start another conversation about HIV. It's really important that people are talking and there is a dialogue happening around PrEP, PeP and what it means to be undetectable. We're not spoon-feeding or trying to educate per se -- we just want to offer the audience ideas and stories to allow them to think about the issues surrounding HIV. There is still so much shame and stigma surrounding the virus and if this play helps just a little bit to change perceptions then we are doing something right!

Affection is open now at The Glory, 281 Kingsland Rd, London, until 24 September.

The Glory
ben buratta