“The Normal Heart”: National Theatre

Neil Dowden on the South Bank

The National Theatre’s revival of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking 1985 play The Normal Heart serves as a celebration of the playwright and activist, who died last year aged 84. As well as writing the first play about the AIDS crisis, Kramer helped to set up Gay Men’s Health collective and later AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power to campaign for gay rights and public health reforms. This production was initially slated for last February but was postponed due to another deadly and divisive virus that has also caused much controversy in terms of medical and political responses: Covid-19.

 

Daniel-Monk, Danny-Lee-Wynter and Henry Nott.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

 

The autobiographical The Normal Heart features an unflinching portrait of Kramer as the determined activist Ned Weeks who ruffles feathers in his own community as well as in the establishment. Taking place in New York City between 1981 and 1984 as the HIV/AIDS epidemic soared predominantly among male homosexuals, it follows Ned’s fight on two fronts: a highly public campaign to force the authorities to put much-needed resources into researching the disease and helping its victims; and urging his fellow gay men to use protection and to not be promiscuous. Not surprisingly, he encounters resistance from both sides: the federal government, the New York mayoralty, mainstream media, and even the medical establishment are slow to recognize the crisis due to institutionalized homophobia; and the gay community are reluctant to give up their recently won right to sexual freedom.

Motivated by the increasing urgency of the situation, with more and more people dying (including some of his own personal friends), Ned uses confrontational tactics that are supported by Dr Emma Brookner, a polio survivor who pioneers research into HIV/AIDS. But his militant style and support of direct action bring him into opposition with those in his advocacy group who favour a more moderate, discreet approach. The group’s newly elected president, closeted investment banker Bruce Niles, persuades the board to eject Ned. Ned also falls out with his high-flying attorney brother Ben who refuses to get his law firm to back the cause. And worse still, Ned’s lover, New York Times journalist Felix Turner, is showing symptoms of the lethal disease.

 

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

 

The Normal Heart was written very close to the crisis it portrays, both in terms of time and personal involvement, but Kramer’s passionately campaigning play still makes a big impact now. It is not just a polemic; it touches us with its humanity. In countries where medication is widely available, it is today possible to live a long and active life with HIV without it developing into AIDS, but the drugs are not accessible to everyone and homophobic attitudes still discriminate. As with Coronavirus – for which there are actually vaccines – there is great global inequality.

Dominic Cooke’s superb production balances the anger with pathos. The show opens silently with the cast gathering around a cauldron. They light it in remembrance of all those who have died of AIDS, and it is then suspended above the stage for the entire performance. After a brief frenzied disco dance representing New York’s hedonistic seventies club scene, the story itself starts in a hospital where patients and their friends anxiously await diagnosis.

 

Henry Nott (foreground) and ensemble. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

 

Vicki Mortimer’s circular, crucible-like set is stripped down to focus on the essentials of the tragedy that unfolds. Ben Daniels gives a powerhouse performance as the driven Ned encompassing a whirlwind of emotions, from anger to tenderness to despair – a crusader for justice difficult to work with but impossible to ignore. Luke Norris is the more buttoned-up, conventional Bruce who relies on his diplomatic skills to make progress. Danny Lee Wynter is a scene stealer as the camp, drawling southern peacemaker Tommy Boatwright, and Daniel Monks plays the free-loving Mickey. Dino Fetscher is touching as Felix who has to cope with Ned’s mood swings as well as his own declining health, while Robert Bowman impresses as the ambivalent Ben who cares for his brother but distances himself from Ned’s gay lifestyle.

And Liz Carr is a forceful presence as the only female character, wheelchair-bound Dr Brookner, one of the first to realize the devastating nature of the new virus and fearlessly speak out about it; she is based on the physician Linda Laubenstein who was an ally of Kramer’s in his struggle for positive action against AIDS.