Positive: Interview with Shaun Kitchener & Timothy George

Amy Gunn

Amy is the Arts Editor at Vada. She is a theatre director, and notorious lesbian, living in London. She enjoys making theatre which challenges an audience and believes the arts are a fantastic platform on which we can communicate ideas, particularly on representation of sexuality. @terribleladygay

HIV is no laughing matter. The stone-faced representation preferred by playwrights and film-makers seems a more appropriate treatment for this life threatening condition. In Positive, playwright Shaun Kitchener has created the incredible: a new heartwarming comedy about living with HIV for the London Fringe.

‘Positive is a more relevant story for today. There are a lot of great plays, films, from years ago, but they have a much more bleak outcome. Things have improved medically since then. While its not a walk in the park, it is more hopeful now.’

Inspired by a column he read about daily life with HIV, Kitchener set about writing a play which does not focus on the medical details but the way one continues living. The small events in the characters’ lives, finding love, keeping a relationship going. These things are influenced and informed by the HIV status of both Benji and his housemate Nikki. The representation of how both a gay man and a straight couple live with HIV is a feature I appreciated in the play. It reminded us that HIV does not discriminate – anybody is vulnerable to it, regardless of sexual orientation.

This run of Positive follows a month at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, Kitchener made adjustments following their Edinburgh show and invited director James Callas Ball to realise the play for a London audience. Kitchener handed over the script completely, trusting Callas Ball to direct the play without his presence as a writer in rehearsal.

‘We’d worked together before on smaller projects and I trusted him and his judgement. Anything he wanted to reinterpret was fine by me, I felt he understood what I wanted to say with the script.’

Kitchener was impressed by the way Callas Ball liked to try things out before discarding ideas. Sometimes he would even surprise the playwright by attempting something that didn’t sound right, but actually yielded a lot of potential in rehearsal.

‘He’s a really good judge of what works on stage. We tried to be open to new ways of performing following the Edinburgh production, and look at the play differently with James.’

Timothy George has been with the project since Edinburgh, when he played Ollie, a potential love interest of Benji. He now plays Benji, the main character.

‘Since Edinburgh the play has changed, for a start its become a two act play, rather than a one act. There are more flashbacks, more details about who these characters are and that’s great as an actor, to better understand your character. It’s more interesting to play. The heart of the play is still the same.’

The character of Ollie has an extreme reaction to discovering Benji’s HIV status. Having played characters at different levels of empathy and understanding, I asked George how he found this as an actor.

‘On one level its harder trying to empathise with Ollie’s character because his reaction is so unkind. You have to find what has made him respond in such a horrible way. Is it his level of maturity? Is it fear or lack of education? With Benji, the challenge is more to realise someone who is depressed, but is trying to appear fine.’

In addition to writing, Kitchener also acts in the show. He plays Matt, Benji’s love interest.

‘He likes to think of himself as straight-talking, keeping people on their toes, but I don’t think that’s the case. He’s good for Benji.’

‘He’s not too worried about what people think, which is something Benji has had on his mind since being diagnosed,’ George adds. ‘They balance each other well.’

After interviewing the cast, I went to see the play. It proved to be just as witty and tender as I had hoped. For a full review, check out David Blackett’s article here. I heartily recommend you go and see this show.

Positive runs until Sunday 1 June at Waterloo East Theatre. Show details can be found here.

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