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Northern Ireland actor Matthew Cavan driven to brink of suicide after death threats over HIV diagnosis to appear in Lyric play

'I could see myself like an emaciated Tom Hanks in the movie Philadelphia, lying in a hospital bed with purple spots on my body'

By Ivan Little

Carrickfergus actor Matthew Cavan received death threats after he went public about being HIV positive in a 2010 interview with this newspaper. On Sunday night, he appears at Belfast's Lyric Theatre playing a character with the condition in a role made famous by singer Marc Almond.

A talented and courageous Co Antrim actor, who has spoken emotionally about living with HIV, is starring in a new Northern Ireland musical production about ... HIV. Matthew Cavan, from Carrickfergus, who was driven to the brink of suicide by abuse and bullying several years ago, has been cast in a demanding role written originally for former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond.

The song cycle Ten Plagues, with music composed by Conor Mitchell from Lurgan, was inspired by the Black Death - the Great Plague of London - in 1665.

Celebrated English playwright Mark Ravenhill, who's also HIV positive, wrote the words for the hour-long show, which is a cycle of 16 songs.

With Almond in sparkling form, the show was a huge success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011 after it was workshopped at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

The production draws parallels between the Great Plague and the emergence of Aids in the 20th century, when some termed it the "gay plague".

Back home in Lurgan, Conor Mitchell never really gave serious consideration to reviving Ten Plagues, but he always hoped the opportunity might one day arise.

And that chance presented itself after he set up his Belfast Ensemble to give young singers and musicians here a platform to showcase their talents in Ireland and to the wider world.

Conor was an admirer not only of 28-year-old Matthew Cavan's singing, but also of his campaign to break down the misconceptions about HIV.

And he realised Matthew would be the perfect fit for Ten Plagues and its Irish premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Sunday night.

Matthew was diagnosed as HIV positive eight years ago, but even though the news devastated him, he eventually gained enough inner strength to tell the world about his experiences and stress that the disease was no longer a death sentence.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he also railed against the ignorance surrounding HIV and revealed that even members of the gay community had shown an amazing lack of sensitivity towards him.

He was once ordered out of a gay bar, because there were fears that he could pass on HIV through touching a glass.

After he went public, Matthew received social media messages wishing him dead.

His diagnosis had come three days before he was due to open in a play called Bison as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival in Belfast in 2009.

The play was then staged in London, but after returning to Belfast, Matthew says he went into meltdown.

"Even though I knew it wasn't life-threatening, I still had to deal with what I called my 'Philadelphia effect'.

"I could see myself in that movie, lying like an emaciated Tom Hanks in a hospital bed with purple spots all over my body.

"That was never going to happen because of the medical advances. But the mental health side of HIV was a really scary part of it for me."

Seven years on, Matthew says a massive number of people in Northern Ireland are even now still completely unaware of the full facts of HIV.

"It's still not talked about and I think a large section of our society think it's a disgusting gay disease that people should be ashamed about."

Matthew is appalled that some politicians here still dismiss concerns about HIV and claim money shouldn't be assigned to research, treatment and education.

He points to recent figures which show that the transmission of HIV is on the increase here.

And he's backing calls for new drugs to be made available in Northern Ireland.

Matthew, who says his Christian family have been fully supportive and loving through his bad as well as good times, insists that prejudice and enmity towards gay people are still alive - and sometimes kicking - on the streets of Belfast.

He adds: "It can still be terrifying for gay people to walk around in the city centre.

"And, while support for the Pride march and festival has been fantastic, it tends to be just one day, or one week every year."

The refusal of the DUP to legislate for same-sex marriage frustrates Matthew, who came out at the age of 16.

Composer Conor Mitchell shares his anger that gay rights aren't taken seriously enough.

And Conor questions any assertion that attitudes to gay people have changed all that dramatically.

He says: "Some people just assume that, because there is a gay character in EastEnders and a pride march in Belfast, that the entire anti-gay thing has gone away.

"I would never in a million years walk down the street in Belfast holding a man's hand. I would not feel physically safe."

On a happier note, Matthew and Conor have been busy for weeks rehearsing for Ten Plagues, which the singer regards as a "magnificent" piece of musical theatre.

Matthew says he needed absolutely no persuasion to perform in the show, adding: "After Conor gave me the score and I listened to the CD, I knew that I wanted to do it and I instantly got the parallels.

"The journey of this man with HIV greatly affected me."

But Ten Plagues isn't the only current string to Matthew's artistic bow. For he is also a drag queen called Cherry on Top.

"The persona was created after I played the part of Frank N Furter in a cabaret version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

"The cabaret club offered me work on a regular basis as a drag artist and I'm there three times a week."

Matthew, a Protestant, has also performed as Cherry on Top at a Sinn Fein Strictly Come Dancing competition, which he hosted and judged.

He says: "I've also been to GAA clubs. They seem to love me in west Belfast."

However, east Belfast hasn't got in on the drag act quite so enthusiastically, apparently.

Matthew hopes his upbeat attitude to life in the face of HIV will encourage others in despair.

"I want people to see in me a guy who is living life to the full. Due to those medical advances, HIV does not have to mean a shorter life span any more. But I am not trying to glorify HIV. I wish I'd never got it."

Two years ago, Conor Mitchell talked to the Belfast Telegraph about his battle against alcohol addiction. He admitted that the disease had nearly killed him.

This week, Conor revealed he was still alcohol-free, leaving him free to concentrate on his music and his ambitious plans for the Belfast Ensemble.

"We are all very excited about the Ensemble and Ten Plagues," he says. "The show is set in 1665, but we let the audience create their own metaphor and draw the parallels with today.

"With the piano-playing by me and the vocal performance by Matthew, it's kind of Schubert meets Elvis Costello.

"But, in the staging, it's like a German arthouse piece of psychedelia."

Conor says he believes there is space in Belfast for a progressive new musical company like his Ensemble.

"I want a company, which I am creatively in charge of, to come up with productions that we can take to Europe. We are a cool, sexy city and we should be sending out more work.

"The three pieces we have done so far have been of a very high international standard. And people have started to respond with money, so the funding has been quite good, though the absence of a government at Stormont is having a definite impact.

"Even so, for us everything is moving in the right direction - it's just glacial."

The Ensemble have an artistic and technical team in place, but the infrastructure isn't there yet in terms of a marketing team, or even an office.

"We are still at the grassroots, but there's an electricity about that which will sustain us," says Conor.

Ten Plagues is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast on Sunday, November 12, at 8pm. For more details, visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

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