Adam Deusien and Colette Keen

ON World AIDS Day this Sunday Living Positive Victoria will host a rehearsed reading of The Death of Kings, a piece from acclaimed playwright Colette F. Keen and director Adam Deusien.

In the style of verbatim theatre, the play takes the words of those on the ground during the AIDS epidemic in Sydney during the 80s, which Keen recorded during a series of interviews.

“In 2011 a friend of mine said how he was concerned that a lot of stories were going to be lost because we’re coming up to the 30th anniversary of the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation and things like that, and people who were first diagnosed with AIDS were getting older, to put it gently,” Keen said.

She conducted 10 interviews with people who lived through the epidemic, recording first-hand accounts of events that shaped Australia’s gay community.

“The first question I asked everyone — and I didn’t really need to ask any questions after that — was, what was it like being young and gay in Sydney in the 80s?” Keen said.

“There was just this wonderful sense of joy and fun and parties and then wham, this thing happened.”

Deusien argued the events described in The Death of Kings were not considered as hugely significant moments in Australian history as they should.

“Some of the contributors say it’s the moment that unified the community in Australia, and it’s a really important part of Australian and Australian LGBT history and cultural memory that’s not really acknowledged in that way,” Deusien said.

“It’s always attached to safe sex messages or doom and gloom around it. That’s warranted, it needs to be acknowledged in that manner, but as an act of history, it needs to be celebrated too.”

Developing a verbatim rather than a dramatised script allowed Keen to tell a unique and authentic Australian story.

“I thought, why are we relying on overseas stories to inform us about what happened when we’ve got history recognised worldwide as the best response to the epidemic that happened right here,” she said.

“And verbatim? Well number one, I was not a gay man in the 80s. I think people are their stories, and this is a group of incredibly articulate and wonderfully-funny people who are willing to share their stories.”

Deusien agreed, saying it also presented a unique opportunity for audiences to engage with the material.

“Verbatim theatre has a way of presenting the truth as authentically as possible, and I think an audience can relate to the authenticity of it in a way that perhaps for dramatised versions of it they don’t,” he said.

In The Death of Kings, the lines taken from interviews with men now in their 50s and older are read by actors in their 20s. Keen and Deusien hoped this would not only evoke the time the play was set, but help young people connect with these stories for the first time and understand what the experience was like.

“I remember one young person after the reading in Sydney said to me, I had no idea, no idea that you guys went through this stuff,’” Keen said.

Deusien agreed, saying several moments in the script were revelations for him as a young man who didn’t experience the events described.

“There’s a quote in there from one of the contributors about the reverence of the body beautiful and the vain gay man all about his body. This person believes this came from the fact that you needed to look healthy otherwise people thought you had HIV,” he said.

“And this person says it didn’t exist in the community before the 80s. For me that’s astonishing because it’s just part of my world.”

With the focus of the global HIV community turning to Melbourne for next year’s AIDS 2014 conference, Keen and Deusien said they hoped The Death of Kings could be a part of it. Keen argued the arts had a very important role to play in how the world engaged with the epidemic.

“I think when you’re concentrating on very serious medical matters you sometimes forget to tell the stories to each other, or you just assume everyone knows the stories,” she said.

“I think the celebratory nature of it is a very important thing.”

INFO: The rehearsed reading of The Death of Kings is on December  1 from 5pm at Lawlor Studio, Southbank Theatre on Sturt St, Southbank. Tickets are $25, book online at or turn up on the day.

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