The Shame That Dare Not Speak Its Name
Thematically, “Rapids” by Shaun Dunne, presented by Dunne in association with Talking Shop Ensemble, shows remarkable maturity and sensitivity in its exploration of HIV and AIDS in Ireland. Which might seem surprising given that, theatrically, it often looks like an A+ project presentation by a group of precocious Transition Year students. In fairness, the disarmingly personable Dunne, who often looks like a Transition Year student, is a lot smarter and far more experienced than that. And it shows. With onstage co-conspirators, the hugely impressive duo of Eva Jane Gaffney and Lauren Larkin, Dunne undertakes a huge challenge in "Rapids." One that attempts something far more important than merely listing facts and statistics surrounding HIV in Ireland.
Created with Aisling Byrne and Lisa Walsh, ”Rapids” begins with, and frequently returns to, direct address to the audience. No real surprise with the clue being in the company name; Talking Shop Ensemble. For eighty minutes Dunne, Gaffney and Larkin talk intelligent shop about HIV and AIDS in Ireland, relaying several accounts about contracting HIV, the lack of adequate care or understanding, and attacking many of the misinformed myths surrounding this often socially stigmatised condition. Such as those with HIV are dangerously infectious even if they’re taking medication. They’re not. Indeed they couldn’t be safer than when taking medication. Or how about HIV means the end of great sex. It doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t have to. Or that people in twenty-first century Ireland are extremely aware and understanding when it comes to HIV and AIDS. Guess again. Why should they be, HIV could never happen to them, right? And again, guess again.
Disclosure after the event is where the journey with HIV starts for many people and Dunne takes here as his starting point also. Trying to create a safe space for disclosures to occur, for both the sufferer and the listener, Dunne and co talk in detail about what happens, what’s needed and what’s missing. As well as talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who comes to serves as a wonderfully clunky metaphor. Switching effortlessly between direct address and an often heightened meta-theatricality Dunne, Gaffney and Larkin relay the experiences of HIV and AIDS sufferers gathered from interviews and conversations, marrying political challenges to personal experiences.
Textually, Dunne’s taut script weaves and returns on itself, with repetition of words, phrases and ideas generating an almost liturgical fervour in places. Killian Water’s 80’s heavy film design, projected with spilt second timing on three rotatable screens, lends proceedings a deeper sense of history and context. A minimal set, into which towels, balloons and body bags are brought to terrific effect, suggests strong hints of Brecht. As do Larkin, Gaffney and Dunne, whose Brechtian separation of actor and character, with characters often being shared by another actor, fractures an easy naturalism into something much more thoughtful and thought provoking. Without ever losing sight of the emotional pain of hearing the worse thing you ever want to hear from an ex, seeing a body bag being laid out, being thrown out on the street, or discovering you’ve been stealthed (the practice of removing a condom just prior to penetration and engaging in unprotected sex when your partner is powerless to prevent it) with devastating consequences.
With “Rapids” Dunne and co have successfully delivered that oft dreaded production: the important show. Yet “Rapids” proves to be the exception to the rule by being both incredibly important and often extremely engaging. A slow build and a slow burner, if “Rapids” overplays its hand a little, slumping around the three quarter way mark, it never resorts to self-pity or easy sensationalism to keep you invested. If never quite as emotionally raw or as politically outraged as fellow AIDS activists Penny Arcade or Sarah Schulman are on how AIDS decimated New York, “Rapids” still manages to pack quite a punch. Yet perhaps its sense of outrage is tempered because it's attempting to reach beyond the outrage.
Disclosure presupposes secrets to be disclosed. Secrets kept from a fear of trusting. In aspiring to a new openness, “Rapids” attempts a restoration of that trust. An act inspired by the hard won, leaps into trust undertaken by those who bravely risked sharing their experiences. All of whom “Rapids” fittingly honours. Till a memorial is fashioned to honour all those who have died from AIDS in Ireland, like the much loved The Diceman, “Rapids” will serve as a fitting tribute. And as a timely reminder of the need to eradicate the shame that dare not speak its name.
It begins with an act of trust. So...
“Rapids” by Shaun Dunne, presented by Shaun Dunne and Talking Shop Ensemble in association with Project Arts Centre, ran at The Axis, Ballymun on March 1 as part of its national tour
“Rapids” continues its tour at Town Hall Theatre Galway on March 6, and Belltable, Limerick on March 7.