To many young LGBT+ people, myself included, the spectre of AIDs feels both unshakeable and yet very distant. We are not the generation who suffered the ‘Gay Plague’. My School commemorated World AIDs Day every December 1st, the red ribbon a common symbol. Certainly for me personally, it is hard to understand how it defined an entire generation: the ADC’s Lent Term production of RENT, however, provides a glimpse into our very own lost generation.
For the uninitiated, RENT is a Rock-Opera-Musical, set in New York City’s East Village, about the lives of a diverse group of impoverished artists. Billy Aronson, who wrote the play, said that he wanted to write “a musical based on Puccini’s La Boheme, in which the luscious splendor of Puccini’s world would be replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern New York”. The characters include Mimi (Megan Thorpe), an erotic dancer, her boyfriend, Roger (Jonah Hauer-King), a songwriter-musician, Mark (Oli MacFarlane), a filmmaker, Maureen (Emily Murray), a bisexual performance artist and her girlfriend, Joanne (Jossie Evans), a lesbian lawyer, as well as Collins (Zak Ghazi-Torbati), a gay anarchist philosophy professor and his partner, the genderfluid Angel (Toby Marlow). It has had successful, award winning runs on Broadway and was made into a film in 2005.
The tagline the publicity team has chosen ‘no day but today’ reflects the rehearsal I sat in on today, both for the characters and the cast themselves. They were rehearsing a huge musical number, La Vie Boheme, which celebrates everything and anything about counter-culture, from marijuana to the Sex Pistols. The direction from Gabbie Bird, who was also choreographing, was lively and full of enthusiasm which was matched by the cast. She was encouraging a sense of organised chaos to the dancing: I was assured by Jossie Evans and Ella Duffy that this production was not a chorus line, but realer and more honest: reflecting the subject matter which has as many glories as there are tragedies. Bird asked the cast to be sharper with their lines, asking for ‘individuality not uniformity’. This isn’t going to be a polished production: but that is the joy and character of RENT
I spoke to Ghazi-Torbati and Marlow briefly, whilst the cast enjoyed a brief break in what looks to be a punishing rehearsal schedule. They both emphasised the importance of what the play represents: characters which could look cliched become real and fully actualised. It transcends its original through its celebration of life, even in its darker moments (and it does get dark). Marlow speaks to me of Angel, his character, as a role which has expanded his horizons. Their sympathies lie with their characters as real people, rather than the cliche they could become, not defined by their gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity, they are actualised with real humanity. The production’s later involvement with a local AIDs charity indicates their commitment to reality and truly understanding who they are portraying and what they represent.
The cast as a whole obviously get on extraordinarily well, prone to breaking into song between songs (the one that sticks in the mind the most was interesting remix of Anaconda), full of camaraderie and witty repartee. What is more obvious is their talent. The cast and crew come with a prestigious background in Cambridge theatre, but it’s more than that. The production doesn’t open at the ADC until March 11th, where it will run until Saturday 14th, before picking up again on Monday 16th and carrying on until Saturday 21st (an impressive run), but already I was struck by how there was an already palpable sense of professionalism to it. I don’t doubt that RENT will be not only a hugely successful musical production, but will also trigger thought-provoking debate in Cambridge about not just on HIV/AIDs and sexuality, but also on the vitality of life, even when hope seems slim.
RENT will play in the ADC theatre between the Wednesday (11/02/15) and Saturday (21/03/15). Tickets may be purchased via the ADC website; tickets sell from £9.
Mimi Trevelyan-Davis (Culture Editor)