In his book Love Undetectable, a trio of essays giving an insightful look into the battle against HIV and AIDS in the United States in the 1990s, Andrew Sullivan notes that the latest treatments for HIV have transformed the virus from a plague into a chronic illness. The play Il-Pożittivi invites viewers to reflect on the nature of this illness, which, however, has more far-reaching consequences than typical ailments. There is a weight attributed to HIV that no one with any other malady has ever had to carry.
“With these medicines we have, we are not found wanting (ma jonqosna xejn). All we are lacking… is company”, says Susan, brilliantly played by Josette Ciappara.
HIV is shown in the play to be an affliction both distancing and silencing, surrounded by shame and both imposed and self-inflicted ostracisation, but which, importantly, cannot stop anyone from thriving and living life to its utmost fruition, so long as the right attitude is adopted, as Susan reminds us.
Produced by Culture Venture, Il-Pożittivi, written by Simon Bartolo and directed by Toni Attard, portrays the everyday situations of a web of people who are somehow in proximity to the virus, whether they are HIV positive or associated with those who are. It comes at a time when the discourse surrounding HIV is somewhat scant in the public sphere, as though swept under the rug – out of sight, out of mind.
In the essay When Plagues End, Sullivan chronicles what for him are the personal ramifications of the AIDS epidemic in the US. The play Il-Pożittivi shows us how the thoughts and feelings associated with that epidemic still have a grip on the common mentality surrounding HIV and those stricken by it. For many of us who are misinformed, HIV seems to be the equivalent of leprosy. As the character of Axel, played by Stephen Mintoff, describes it, “people with HIV would be bed-bound (f’qiegħ ta’ sodda) and covered in lesions…”
The play has made accessible realities very seldom in public consciousness
The preconceptions and misconceptions used to badger those living with HIV are shown in the play to be as prevalent as the conditions of the disease itself. The character of Emily, played by Clare Agius, is a pharmacist echoing the moral haze that surrounds HIV. She is the mouthpiece for a very real stratum of society, whose ill-feelings towards bearers of the illness are at once spurred by misinformation and informed by personal, value-laden constructions.
The fact that she is not depicted as a one-dimensional bigot is a point in favour of the play. Refreshingly, when Emily venomously disavows Karl’s “lifestyle”, she is not referring to his homosexuality per se, but to the impression of promiscuity attached to the diagnosis of HIV. Nevertheless, the supposition of promiscuity is a preconception stereotypically attributed to homosexuality.
“Unlike the Spanish flu or the Black Death,” writes Sullivan, “[HIV] was not entirely random because it was spread by sex, and sex has rarely been understood to be as neutral an activity as shaking hands or breathing the air. Nor, of course, should it.
“The meeting of two human beings in a sexual encounter can never be neutral or a casual phenomenon. It has meaning, and danger, and promise. It betokens a particular form of responsibility as well as liberation. And when it also involves the risk of death, that responsibility – and that meaning – is even more profound.”
The play makes no moralising takes on any of this, but rather presents the life of the characters within in a manner that is respectful of their individual agency. The characters of Axel and David, played by Benjamin Abela, are shown to be experimenting with their respective agencies until they are confronted with events that stop them in their tracks, both related to HIV.
David, whose encounter with Karl, played by Ray Calleja, makes the possibility of contracting HIV all the more apparent, suddenly finds himself consumed by the possibility that he has somehow become infected – a paranoia made more convoluted by his ignorance on the matter.
Axel, who is also ignorant on matters concerning HIV, is in turn confronted with the disease through his newfound boyfriend Marcus, played by Chris Vincent. Through their interaction, the audience is shown a glimpse of a prevalent burden carried by HIV positive people – the problem of disclosure.
In a heartfelt exchange between him and Axel right after he tells him he is HIV positive and Axel is preparing to leave, Marcus, pleading Axel to stay, says “my whole life is a loop – I meet someone, I like them, they leave. It just goes on and on – they leave.
“Whenever I meet someone, I don’t know if I should tell them or when I should tell them. Do I tell them before the first date, the first time we have sex, the first kiss, even?”
All this is made more poignant by the fact that, with the treatment he is receiving, the virus in him is undetectable and, therefore, not transmissible.
It is difficult not to liken HIV with COVID-19, our current virulent oppressor. HIV is a distancing disease. Due to misconceptions about the manner of its transmissibility, people “cross the street when they see you”, as Susan tells us, or they leave the second you disclose your status to them, as Marcus says.
With COVID-19, we are forced to keep our distance from one another lest we catch the disease ourselves, but, in the case of COVID-19, the distance between us lessens the more hope, in the form of vaccines, increases. With HIV, despite the heights that hope has soared in the form of effective treatment, the distance it forces is seemingly perennial because of the ignorance that still surrounds it.
Il-Pożittivi is a refreshing, sophisticated work aptly presenting a snapshot of life entwined with HIV and the attitudes and negotiations involved within it. It has made accessible realities very seldom in public consciousness and has reminded us that misinformation is not an excuse we can be blasé about but rather something we are obliged to address, especially in ourselves.