Melbourne is hosting the 20th International AIDS Conference on 20–25 July. Alongside the conference is a cultural program, including The Death of Kings with has a short run until 19 July.
Based on interviews with men who were part of Sydney’s gay scene around Oxford Street in the 1980s, it’s a verbatim piece that began when writer Colette F Keen become concerned that the stories about the initial community response to HIV in Australia were getting lost.
The cast of five (Mark Dessaix, Greg Iverson, Sebastian Robinson, Joseph Simons and Tyson Wakely) represent at least two interviewees each. In some ways this is confusing because it’s difficult to follow the individual stories, but it also frees the experiences within the stories and the context of their telling to be heard without the emotional connection to a person.
And it is important to keep telling these stories.
It’s not just because there are still over 35 million people – 35,000,000! that’s the population of Australian and another half – living with HIV/AIDS in the world, but because the communities who led the fight and took the first casualties are slipping out of living memory.
The Death of Kings is about remembering and celebrating how the Sydney’s gay community (and its allies) faced (or denied) a plague that took the world too long to understand. There are stories about parents who disowned sons and about men who blamed themselves for getting sick, but they are balanced by the stories of love, acceptance and dance parties – and by those of survival. It’s sentimental, but these stories all come from men who are still with us today; they are worth some sentiment.
And it’s not all crying and poppers. It includes incidental stories of how communities communicated before the internet and how our federal government responsed. This was the early days of Medicare (imagine, free universal healthcare!) and the Labor government reasoned that prevention and education were far cheaper and would result in far less death than treatment alone. It wasn’t long before there were free condoms everywhere and free support where it was needed, and within a realtively short time the Grim Reaper made sure that we knew how to minimise the risks. There was still an unfair stigma associated to HIV/AIDS and it wasn’t eradicated, but the spread slowed to the point that young people are having unsafe sex again! This isn’t something to celebrate.
For people like me in their 40s and 50s, the idea of unsafe penetrative sex was and is unthinkable. I’m too young to have seen hoards of my friends die, but I remember the AIDS jokes of the 1980s and I know what it’s like to see a friend become a barely breathing skeleton and die from AIDS. It’s a horrible horrible way to die.
What is also being forgotten is that HIV/AIDS was a death call in the 80s and early 90s. If you were a gay man in your 20s to 40s at that time, it was possible to lose count of how many of your friends died. I try and I cannot imagine what that must be like. Some in The Death of Kings like it to towns and communities who lost most of their young men in wars.
This is why shows like this are so important. Sure, it needs some tightening as a piece of theatre (and its opening night audience were generally people who were around in the 1980s and didn’t need a lesson in the hanky code or how to put on a condom), but these works become keepers of stories; stories that mustn’t be forgotten because we know what happens when we forget the lessons of the past.