Perhaps you saw the headlines claiming COVID-19 to be the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu or condemning the unprecedented response of major governments’ to the spread of the disease. Perhaps you also thought, have they forgotten? Three Winters Green depicts stories of the last major pandemic to hit Australian shores, namely the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
First produced in 1993, Campion Decent’s script was written fresh out of the first decade of deaths in the LGBTQIA+ community and it tells the story of two men who were amongst those that died, Martin (Tom Kelly) and Francis (Sebbie Thornton Walker). As angels, the two men share the years leading up to their deaths in fractured, overlapping timelines: Martin had a difficult, volatile relationship with his deeply Catholic and alcoholic mother Maxine (Norah George) and Francis was struggling to navigate his sexuality alone while suffering great trauma. Surrounding Martin and Francis are also a community of friends and family attempting to shoulder stigma and shame in their various associations with this unknown but deadly disease.
Joining forces with co-director Les Solomon, Decent left the script unchanged to reflect the contemporary urgency of the original production and to maintain a sense of authenticity. As such, the production had an air of nostalgia that heightened the more poignant moments like the reveal of the Australian Aids Memorial Quilt. It served as a reminder that even as attitudes change, the mourning is ongoing. What was lost cannot be returned. The set design embraced this legacy with a large red ribbon encircling the story.
At the same time, the production worked to construct some distance between the horrors of HIV/AIDS and homophobia and the love and joys of the characters. There was no violence depicted on stage and a deeply inappropriate student/teacher relationship remained PG-13. And, yet, in the moments of confrontation between Martin and his mother or Francis and his ex-teacher Joseph (Samuel Welsh), the rapid changes in pitch and tone were startling. Over the course of the play, the narrative plot and the emotional arc seemed mismatched or uneven, which made the focus of the production feel scattered between characters, like the comic Mick (Tom Kelly) and dramatic Maxine, and between modes, like the monologues of Maxine and Andrew (Ben Jackson) and the realistic scenes between Beck (Maddison Silva) and Jen (Julia Muncs).
The production was at its best in its tender conversations where characters revealed their difficulties of joy and heartache and care and love. One stand-out scene involved Beck and Jen considering their role in the pandemic; what kind of help are they able to provide? What difference can they really make amongst all this suffering? Muncs, Silva, and Jackson gave powerfully understated performances in the face of a lot of fear. On the other hand was Thornton Walker’s flamboyant, foppish drag queen Francis, a character who endeared himself to the audience with his courage.
As World AIDS Day approaches on December 1st, this return to the last major pandemic speaks to the importance of community for support during and after crisis. The survivors do remember, the victims are not forgotten.
Three Winters Green is running at Fringe HQ from November 10th – 20th
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