Before he gets going, Scott Agnew checks that everyone in the room knows what he really means when he talks about snapping a banjo string. Because anyone who thinks they're in for an hour of innocuous anecdotes from a homespun folk player might be in for a shock. The incident during which – to use the medical term – the frenulum beneath the foreskin of his penis tore and “showered the walls with blood” is one of the more viscous but by no means most explicit of stories in this brief survey of the activities that might have led to him contracting HIV. Cantering from sauna to nightclub to drug-fuelled house parties, he admits that sometimes he wasn't in total control of his actions.
Long before his HIV diagnosis, Agnew needed another for his mental health, but the GP he saw wrote him off successively as an alcoholic, a food addict, a gambler, a sex addict and more, without recognising the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Agnew now manages both conditions, but there's an equivocal tone in his text that suggests he's still overwhelmed by this. For instance, he makes a specific point of saying that not understanding his mental health doesn't absolve his responsibility for his virus, as though HIV is a shameful thing. The words that repeat as a refrain in his show are: “It's not ideal – a downbeat phrase in search of a bright side.
Yet he does recognise positive aspects to his HIV diagnosis: for instance, he jokes, his medication has raised his life expectancy above the average for Glasgow, his home. And with the virus now undetectable in his blood count, he's a safer date than most – although, he points out lugubriously, “that's a hard sell on the dancefloor”. His politicking is bolder when directed outside himself: why is it, he asks, that gays on the telly have to be sexually neutered to be acceptable for a mainstream audience? Camp is fine, he argues, but there needs to be a wider spectrum of queer personality in public life. Elsewhere he gets exercised by the widespread use of date-rape drugs among gay men, who have been “hiding for so long” that they have no way of expressing their emotions. Undoubtedly the two are connected.
For all the comedic banter, it's a poignant show, one that raises a number of questions about Agnew's relationship with his diagnoses and with his Catholic family. Within those questions is a sharp impression of of how far the LGBT+ community still needs to travel towards visibility and feeling accepted within society at large. (MC)
Scott Agnew: I've Snapped My Banjo String, Let's Just Talk is at 22.00 at Gilded Balloon at the Counting House until 29 August. See venue for accessibility information - https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/scott-agnew-i-ve-snapped-my-banjo-string-let-s-just-talk
On living with frenulum breve: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/feb/28/healthandwellbeing.health2
On HIV stigma and homophobia: http://www.thebody.com/content/art54913.html
A look at the language of HIV stigma: http://www.thebody.com/content/75496/when-words-work-against-us-the-language-of-hiv-sti.html
Information on bipolar disorder: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/bipolar-disorder/