Lucy catches up with Bren Gosling ahead of his play focused on Princess Diana’s handshake with an AIDS patient. For Bren this story is incredibly personal and important…
Can you tell us how you first came up with this idea and why you felt it was a story that needed telling?
The idea for Moment of Grace came from the theme of the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival – ‘Women activists and agents of change’. I was at the time needing to write a one act play for the John Burgess playwrighting group. Immediately I saw in my head that iconic image of Princess Diana shaking the hands of an AIDS patient when she opened Britain’s first AIDS Unit. I pitched the play to the festival, and they loved it. There it showcased for two sold out performances at Bloomsbury Theatre Studio. HIV & AIDS in the 1980’s wastaboo, even amongst many of the LGBTQ+ community. A diagnosis meant almost certainly a horrible death within five years. There was no treatment. This subject was enveloped in misinformation, homophobia, hatred, and fear. Princess Diana’s very public handshake with an AIDS patient was a key moment in recent LGBTQ+ history, indeed in collective history. We needed someone iconic to take a stand. Diana did. In that single act of human kindness, she changed to face of AIDS forever. This was 1987. Many current generation LGBTQ+ remain unaware of the event and its significance. It is important to pass on the baton of those who have gone before, their legacy of bravery and activism, not only Diana but also the many ordinary folk who also stood up and said ‘No.’‘This is wrong.’ People with AIDS aren’t pariahs. AIDS is not a self-inflicted gay plague.
We need to remember the past to move forward to a better future. Under impossible circumstances all we as human beings have left is kindness, and ourconnectedness through touch.
Can you share a bit about the writing process and what it was like sitting with the individuals offering their personal testimonies?
Initially, someone, I think at The London Metropolitan Archives, told me about The National HIV Story Trust. It is their mission to collect filmed testimonies of those affected personally by the UK AIDS Pandemic. They have put these testimonies into an archive held at The London Metropolitan Archives. Through NHST, I was introduced to a number of individuals who shared their stories. These included patients who, miraculously survived until treatment became available in the late nineties, a medical doctor who was present at Diana’s opening of the AIDS Unit and nurses who worked on AIDS wards in the 80’s. 56 Dean Street also were extremely supportive and helpful.
Listening to someone either on the phone or sat in front on me telling me the most incredible, moving stories was an emotional rollercoaster but inspirational also. It brought back a lot of my own memories of living as a young gay man in London at that time. Much more crucially, writing the play I uncovered another real-life AIDS hero story, which played out from the event along side Diana’shandshake moment. See the play and find out!
What was it like working with the National HIV Story Trust and why did you want them to be involved with the production?
As I’ve said, the Trust really are doing an important job in finding and collecting these personal testimonies, so we never forget what happened and can remember individuals lost to AIDS, their bravery and astounding acts of kindness by those who cared. We need to remember those terrible times and learn from them. The Archive of the NHIVST affords access to these narratives, which can inform creative expression through theater, and other media. The Trust will be leading a post-performance Q& A following the matinee on 9th July. All ticket sales proceeds for July 9th will be donated to the Trust. Their website is https://www.nhst.org.uk
Why did you select these particular testimonies and how do they lend themselves to the narrative?
I chose those stories that I felt were the most shocking, that would resonate visually in audiences’imagination and perhaps had lain unspoken for decades. Moment of Grace is inspired by a real event. But the characters – Jude a young nurse, Andrew a patient, and Donnie a firefighter estranged from his gay son are all fictional. What I have done for device is to allow the real stories to breath again through the type of characters that would have been impacted by AIDS at the time.
Can you explain how your life has been affectedby your diagnosis and how writing this production has impacted you?
I got diagnosed in the nineties. Treatment was newly available but – and this isn’t often talked about – it came with horrendous side effects. I got something called peripheral neuropathy, this means the death of nerve endings in arms and legs, which makes them hypersensitive even to having bedsheets in contact with skin. I also had an issue with osteoporosis – thinning of bone density often associated with menopausal women, and changes in the distribution of body fat. It was scary meeting other patients, some had something referred to as ‘Buffalo hump’ as fat build up on their backs to it looked like a hump.
Thankfully, drug regimes improved. Some of the drugs I was initially prescribed are no longer used in this country or only used in extremis.
I lost two stones in weight, was in hospital for a month with pneumonia and had fungal infection throughout my body.
How long have you got? It was awful.
The legacy of fear from the 80’s meant psychologically it took a very long time to accept I wasn’t going to die. I nearly did die. But I fought and with the new drugs managed to pull back from the brink.
I got back to work within three weeks, looking ghastly. I recall eating two breakfasts, one at home, the other at McDonald’s to regain weight. I went to the gym. But. Later I got CFS/ME and became housebound for two years. Unable to walk or even watch TV. I recovered. But it took rehabilitation and five years in all. Coming out of all that hell, the compounded impact of the drugs I needed to take to keep me alive and the fact I was basically immobile f*cked up my metabolism. It was terrifying period. My best friend died, and I also had other, multiple bereavements. But. I survived. I began to write. To take writing seriously. I learned to write to a level where I could express the thoughts, ideas and feelings I wanted and present them in short stories and eventually pays and longer works of fiction. If you are interested my website is https://www.brengosling.com/
All these years later, I can call my self ‘a writer’. I am proud to have written Moment of Grace. Incredibly pleased it with it. In a way, writing this play was a cathartic experience for me.
Not enough is talked about how long-term survivors who live with HIV manage into older age. Physiological side effects of both HIV infection and the medication, the legacy of the trauma of AIDS. Yes, AIDS thank goodness is now treatable. HIV is a long-term condition with which you can live.
My life is now good. I am lucky.
What are your hopes for this production what do you want audiences to take away from it?
I want to take people back to a different time and put them right there during the adversity of the 1980’s AIDS crisis. I am seeking to show audienceshow small acts of kindness can make a huge difference in the face of impossible suffering. How we can all be inspired in hope by stories of bravery. This story, these narratives need to be remembered. They are relevant to who we are now: How we behave towards others who are different, who are set apart or are outside the mainstream.
AIDS changed forever the way health care is delivered and for the better. When there was no effective treatment, all that could be done was to show love, compassion and understanding. The examples shown in the play stand up as beacons of hope for humanity, even, and especially in our troubled world today.
Ahead of opening night, how are you feeling?
Excited, nervous. Grateful it is at last having a proper outing as a three-week staged show! We have a superb cast and creative team. So, quietly confident we will make something incredibly special that will remain with audiences for a long time.
Why do you think there hasn’t been too many productions like this before and why is it important to commemorate this moment in history?
I really don’t know. The Diana AIDS handshake was a powerful moment. It really did change the public face of HIV and AIDS. I felt quite driven to write a play about it once I had the idea.
AIDS has had little creative attention from British theatre makers. The television series It’s a Sin of course last year bought wider attention to a current generation audience. There is notable work from writers like Mark Ravenhill including Ten Plagues and Mark Elyot’s My Night with Reg. But mostly, plays about AIDS have come from America.
I am not aware that anyone has told the Diana story before. So, I needed to do that. Please see Moment of Grace.
‘A wonderful story. Compelling. Please see it.’
– Alison Steadman
MOMENT OF GRACE
On at The Hope Theatre from the 28th of June until the 16th of July.
Tickets £16/£13/£10 PREVIEWS
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