We have become somewhat inured of late to the phenomenon of newspaper columnists detailing the minutiae of life under the shadow of a terminal illness. The Observer’s Ruth Picardie and The Times’ John Diamond both arguably became more famous as cancer sufferers than they ever had been as the accomplished journalists they already were.
There was a period when a fatally ill columnist was the latest accessory for the newspaper about town, even deserving a satirical sideswipe from Brass Eye creator Chris Morris in his Time To Go column for the Observer.
It’s hard, then, to remember how much Oscar Moore’s columns for the Guardian, PWA (Person with Aids) affected their readers. Moore had been HIV positive for ten years until, on New Year’s Eve 1993, he came down with a severe attack of shingles that was to result in the first of many admissions into hospital. The ups and downs of his condition, his medications and his state of mind were chronicled from 1994 to 1996 with a characteristically frank style that often included a large quantity of dry wit.
Adapted and directed by Malcolm Sutherland, PWA takes Moore’s words and places them in the mouth of actor Pip Torrens, leaving him with just a minimalist set and a couple of slide projectors to accompany his monologue. It’s all that’s needed: anything more, and the impact of his words would be drowned out.
Initially, the slide projectors illuminate the breaks between columns with brief, clinical descriptions of some of the terms used: septicaemia, CMV, EBV, 3TC, Retrovir. As Moore, who as a film critic valued his sight, finds that a virulent strain of herpes called cytomegalovirus is slowly destroying his retina, we also see a blown up image of the viral cell; when in words Moore describes it as ‘the Pac-man of herpes’, chomping away at his vision, the sight of the spherical virus adds an extra layer of poignancy to the rich metaphor.
Any play that you know will end in the main (in this case, only) character’s death always runs the risk of falling into melodrama. Here, there is no chance of that, with Torrens’ superb performance the perfect counterpart to Moore’s writing. The actor holds the audience with him every step of the way, whether it’s as the Oscar who finds wit in minor inconveniences or the bemusement of children, the Oscar who has to deal with excruciating pain and deep depressions, or the Oscar who can no longer hide his anger about the prejudice faced by gay people with Aids. ‘We’re guilty until proven dead,’ he rails at one point, noting how the media always refers to HIV+ haemophiliacs as ‘innocent’.
As the stage version of Oscar nears the end, he turns to the topic of the columns he’s been writing. It’s a weapon, he explains, a means of fighting the virus. After all, while HIV can mutate enough to render medical therapies useless, it hasn’t yet learned how to type. Moore was being modest: not only did his words help him fight his own battle, but they also contributed to the battle against ignorance and homophobia. This superb stage production deserves to continue Oscar Moore’s legacy for some time to come.
* _**Diary of a PWA** was at the Drill Hall, London. This review was written for Gay.com UK (link no longer available)_