Part Two of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" turned on the topic of forgiveness in the age of Aids. It asked you to imagine that a black gay male nurse had been assigned the job of caring for the terminally ill R oy Cohn, the one-time McCarthy sidekick and virulently racist, self-hating homosexual homophobe. To feel a carer's compassion for this figure would, in the circumstances, put forgiveness to a stiff test.
The theme recurs in The Raft of the Medusa, the play which comprises the second half of Joe Pintauro's double-bill Salvation, which is given a wonderfully powerful English premiere by the London Gay Theatre Company at the Gate. Here, though, the questionof forgiveness is angled even more uncomfortably. Donald (Adam Levy) has just died of Aids; his lover Michael (Jonathan Arun), married and monogamous before he met Donald, has contracted the virus from him. Donald's unforgiven ghost haunts the group therapy session for people with HIV which Michael attends and which Pintauro presents to us in all its heart-wrenching, recrimination-ridden, and blackly comical emotional messiness.
The Gericault-derived title is high-toned but can't disguise the fact that, for the best of reasons, Pintauro has assembled a group of characters that have the cross-sectional feel of a disaster movie cast. Valuably reminding you that Aids is not a gay disease, the participants include a hearing-and-speech-impaired drug-addicted black woman (Natasha Williams), a married straight man who doesn't know whether he picked up the virus from an infected needle or from being gang-banged in prison, and a respectable middle-aged, middle- class woman Cora (Lolly Susi), who, thanks to her experiences, is not best disposed to bisexual or homosexual men in general.
It's an irony that the Coras of this world who would benefit from seeing The Raft of the Medusa would also be unlikely to attend a play put on by a gay theatre company. This is a shame because Raft would touch all kinds of people. There are bits that feel too conventionally plotty, but the untidy interaction between the characters' prejudice-triggering differences and the heightened fellow-feelings fostered by their shared status is the basis for a bracingly unpious drama.
Like the sketches that comprise the first half of the evening, Raft does not reach for facilely consoling answers. "What do you want?" the unforgiven ghost asks his infected lover. "My life back," comes the reply. Blame is thrown around in the play but, though it understands the urge to look back in bitterness, Raft suggests there are more creative ways to use the time left you.
n `Raft of the Medusa', Gate Theatre, W11 (071-229 0706)
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