The Normal Heart review – poignant and powerful account of the Aids epidemic

Olivier theatre, London
The first London production of the Larry Kramer play since 1986 captures the fear and anger in the gay community of that decade – and its heartbreaking personal losses

Comparisons have been drawn between the trauma of the Aids epidemic in the 1980s and the Covid-19 pandemic. Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play, written at the time of what many called the “gay plague” in New York, shows how these parallels are crude and incommensurate. “We are living an epidemic while the rest of the world is going on around us,” says its central character. “We are living a war while they are living in peace-time.” Nonetheless, this is a resonant moment to revive Kramer’s poignant and incendiary drama about the politics and prejudice around infectious disease, as well as gay love and activism.

This production – the first in London since its European premiere at the Royal Court in 1986 – becomes a painful record of all the ways in which a prejudiced establishment shut its eyes and ears to the epidemic. Its story spans four years in the early 80s and takes us inside a gay health advocacy group led by the terrier-like Ned Weeks (based on Kramer himself), whose members campaigned as a generation of young gay men died around them. It shows how few column inches were written on the disease’s spread, and how doctors received no funding for research into a cure.

Unlike Russell T Davies’ TV series It’s a Sin, which presents a highly emotional story through a group of friends, this is a combative drama of ideas. Weeks (Ben Daniels – passionate, pugnacious) is the co-founder of the advocacy group, whose inflammatory ideas and leadership style lead him to be ousted, while the head of the group, Bruce Niles (finely played by Luke Norris), is his opposite – a closeted banker laughing along with his boss’s homophobic jokes but hoping to bring change from the inside.

Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart
Liz Carr and Daniels in The Normal Heart. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Directed by Dominic Cooke, it has harder edges and greater authenticity than the 2014 film adaptation, which starred Julia Roberts as infectious diseases specialist Dr Brookner and Mark Ruffalo as Ned. The play captures the anger and internal schisms in the community with searing clarity. “This epidemic is killing friendships too,” says Ned. Some in the cast project this anger a little too bluntly, including Liz Carr as Dr Brookner and Daniels, too, who begins at top volume and continues in that register for too long, though he brings vulnerability in the second half.

The interplay between this group of activists – by turns testy, explosive and flirtatious – is sometimes flattened by this shouty volatility. But Daniel Monks, as the free love advocate Mickey, and Danny Lee Wynter as the self-proclaimed “Southern bitch” Tommy, are more controlled, the former bringing a moving anguish, the latter archness and smarting humour. Robert Bowman as Ned’s older brother, Ben, gives a strong performance despite a sometimes wobbly American accent, and the brothers’ exchanges on life choices are a complex mix of love, shame, anger and quiet homophobia on the part of Ben.

The Normal Heart has its static or dogmatic moments with angry speeches laying out political or ideological positions, but there are also rich and complex discussions, especially the debate on love and sex. Ned argues against “promiscuity” and claims monogamy is not a civil rights issue but a medical one. Mickey, meanwhile, presents the other side in one of the most impassioned moments of the play: “We have been oppressed,” he says, and sees the community’s full and free sex life to be a hard-won right.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart
Fetscher and Daniels. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

The production has the look of a period piece on Vicki Mortimer’s stripped circular stage, whose firepit glows throughout. Most often, it is reported incidents of death and illness that bring the human drama and emotional hits: characters speak of mothers discovering their sons are gay on their deathbeds. Bruce describes his boyfriend’s last hours and the world’s staggering hostility to his illness. These reports coarse through the play, winding themselves around the political arguments.

Ned and Felix’s love story is beautifully rendered too, romantic and heartbreaking in its ending. Dino Fetscher plays the all-American New York Times reporter and boyfriend to Ned exquisitely, and there is a natural chemistry between the actors. We end with the symbolism and significance of a hospital bed, a single loss that captures the entire crisis and resonates for our times. What also echoes is the men’s overwhelming sense of dealing with the unknown. “Can I give it to Ned?” asks Felix, and then, devastatingly: “Can we kiss?”

Contributor

Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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