‘Undetectable’ can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
It could mean a mystery that’s impossible to solve. It could mean a blip a radar balefully fails to pick-up. It could mean something that can affect your life forever.
Undetectable is a play by writer Tom Wright. A 70-minute one-act play showing at the King’s Head Theatre in London.
While it does contain the unholy trinity of the ‘gay play’ – despair, death, and full-frontal nudity – it does so without drumming on tired, dried out themes.
It’s instead a play that both ardently addresses HIV in the LGBTI community while also exploring the universal experience of human intimacy. Doing so with wit and humor; always an award-winning combo.
‘You have lube but no condoms?’
Everything from an iced coffee cup to a bottle of poppers was under the bed. Some red sheets struggle to stay on, limply latching to the corner of the mattress.
Audience members might wonder if they’ve accidentally paid money to see new work by Tracey Emin. An artist notorious for ‘My Bed,’ an artwork that was literally her bed.
But, softly, the lights switch on, and we see a man.
Lex, with a body straight out of a Calvin Klein underwear campaign cira 1989, in Emporio Armani briefs, is the first thing audiences see at the King’s Head Theatre.
After their eyes adjust, they’ll notice another body tangled in Lex, Bradley. Rainbow Diesel y-fronts are his choice.
Lex is staged as a typical #InstaGay. White. Masculine. Built like a bulking tank. Friends who could be mistaken for his brothers.
While Bradley seems modelled over a Raymond Carver short story. Pithy. Choked of emotion. Stops short of being rude. Self-describes as Beyoncé.
After matching on Tinder, the pair are three months into their relationship and tonight is the night. The big one. The one that demands a condom, yet, Lex is short of that.
But him having lube does not go down smoothly for Bradley. Bringing in conversations about identity, memory and chem-sex.
HIV haunts the characters
Discussions around HIV in the queer media can often feel moss-ridden, but Wright’s writing is fresh. Consulting an issue that permeates the queer experience so relentlessly, but taking-on this responsibility without preaching.
However, the show is not about words. It is about people. Pretty people, particularly.
Lewis Brown and Freddie Logan (Bradley and Lex) give flesh to the playtext. While they both embody the male pin-up, Lex, as Bradley points out, could camouflage into the tiled torsos of Grindr easily.
This gives rise to conversations about race and how identity is plural, not singular. Their characters, like life, are complex. The past haunts them and irascibly rings into their present lives.
‘He’s all push, push, push’
Both handle their complexity in different ways. Lex has reduced himself to a one-dimensional man. His interests are no more interesting than a screen-saver on a Dell laptop.
As Logan told Gay Star News, he’s all body. Logan’s character uses his torso and the latest Nutribullet juice trends to form his identity, but in doing so, has found his life lacking meaning.
‘He’s all push, push, push, gym, gym gym. The gym acts an escape for my character, that release. It’s his way of feeling good.
‘You don’t know anyone in life. Bradley has known Lex for three months, and he thinks Lex does not have as much pain as him. But Lex does, and he has different ways of handling it. Projecting it.
‘If everyone can give people a chance – not be too quick to say, “that’s not my type,” people can be more daring and forgiving in their quest for intimacy.’
‘We’re very isolated people’
While Bradley, unashamedly black and effeminate, embraces his multiplicity to the extent that he splinters off. A fracturing rainbow. Seemingly unable to reconcile the different sides of his self.
Lewis Brown told Gay Star News that Undetectable is about ‘exploring how gay men exist with each-other beyond purely sexualized surface-driven interactions.
‘Often, black and gay characters are on the periphery but because this is just two people in a relationship, it’s central. But his color is not a leading factor in the story; it just happens to be there.
‘I identified with Bradley character in terms of not feeling like part of the gay community. Being in it, but feeling separate.’
Above all, Brown hopes people who watch the show realize the value of ‘communication.
‘Being honest with one another. We’re very isolated people, so talking to each-other and being empathetic is vital.’
What these two do is present a compelling and convincing relationship. One that asks two things, how do people find themselves, and how do people find each-other?
One bed. Two men
Director Rikki Beadle-Blair helps present this with a superficially simple set, but it’s more than it seems. A bed with a low-hanging light that the boys bounce around.
The bed, like the decision whether or not to sleep with one another, dominates the room.
Do they end up performing page 12 of the Kama Sutra? That’s honestly not important.
How individuals meet. How the LGBTI community meets, and how the past is detectable even if nobody talks about it.
These themes are important to Undetectable. PrEP has dramatically changed the way queer people think about HIV in relation to their lives. And as medication advances, this doesn’t alter the responsibilities in relationships.
Above all, Tom Wright uses the play to show the teething period of the community. One where HIV defined us, and flowing into one where we are more free to define ourselves.
Undetectable runs at the King’s Head Theatre from 13 March to 6 April 2019. Tickets can be bought here.