Last Updated on October 1, 2021
Love in the Time of AIDS
Set in New York in the early 1980s, writer and activist Larry Kramer’s incendiary “The Normal Heart” exposes the personal and political struggles at the heart of the AIDS crisis that ripped through the city’s gay community. In developed countries, AIDS is now a disease that is both preventable and treatable. But at the time that the play was written, it was surrounded by fear, ignorance and prejudice. As a prominent activist Kramer was able to bear witness to all of this, but how does the play stand up several decades later and does the passing of time offer us any fresh insights?
It is 35 years since ”The Normal Heart” was first produced in the U.K. at the Royal Court starring Martin Sheen. This new production at the National’s Olivier theatre is directed by Dominic Cooke (Follies, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Hollow Crown, The Courier). Cooke has wanted to direct the play since he saw the Royal Court production as a student. The play was acted in the round with Vicki Mortimer’s bare-bones set of low-level metallic benches enclosing the action. This simplicity of staging focused the attention firmly on the interplay between the actors as the conflicting points of view of the protagonists are staked out. Cooke has clearly chosen to place the text at the centre of the performance without resorting to directorial gimmickry.
The opening scene has the cast holding a silent vigil around a flaming cauldron and then jump cuts to a brief club scene with the theatre’s speakers pumping out the loud throbbing synthesizers of Donna Summer’s iconic gay anthem “I Feel Love” as the cast dance. This moment sets up the context for the play effectively for it was from the hedonistic and sexually liberated club and bathhouse scenes particularly in New York and San Francisco that the AIDS epidemic emerged.
Ben Daniels plays Ned Weeks, an irascible gay, Jewish middle-aged writer with an annoyingly good body who is investigating a spate of unexplainable deaths amongst his peers in the New York gay community. Daniels is sure to be a contender for best actor in this year’s theatre awards with a riveting performance fully inhabiting this flawed and difficult character, driven on by his certainty and frustration with the inaction of others. He is encouraged in this by wheelchair-bound doctor Liz Carr (Silent Witness) as Dr Emma Brookner. Carr’s performance is waspish and brusque rising to a crescendo of invective as she lambasts a funding committee for refusing her the cash to carry out her research. Ned is soon involved in building an organisation to raise awareness of the new disease, provide support for its victims and to raise research funds.
The first act of the play is very much concerned with the internal dynamics of the conflicts within the organisation. This would have been familiar territory for Kramer who had founded the ‘Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ organisation in 1982. Ned becomes more and more estranged from his colleagues as he espouses direct action and a confrontational approach to try to force the city authorities to engage with the crisis and to convince his peers to give up their dangerous sexual practices. For some, giving up this sexual freedom is seen as a selling-out of the principles that informed the Gay Liberation struggles of the late 1960s. Others were held back by a fear of being ‘outed’ to employers or preferred to work from ‘inside’ the system. Daniels shifts gears effortlessly, from blazing anger at pretty much everyone to an arch campness and a seductive sense of his own insecurity.
It’s a strong ensemble cast. Elander Moore impresses in a cameo as a scared dying young man;
Danny Lee Wynter charms and amuses as Southern queen Tommy Boatwright who sashays across the ideological divides trying to create unity. Ned’s anger and radicalism are counterpointed by Luke Norris as Bruce Niles, a conservative banker who is brought in to be the ‘safe’ chair of the organisation. There is a visceral and affecting scene in which Norris recounts the prejudice shown to his dying lover on a trip to the South.
Daniel Monks’ Mickey Marcus character is convincingly exhausted by the struggle and embodies the internalised tension between the politicisation of sexual liberation and the need for sexual abstinence.
Representing the political classes Richard Cant is Mayor Koch’s assistant Hiram Keebler in a richly layered performance in which he has to balance his own queer identity with realpolitik.
The ‘liberal’ straight world is represented by Robert Bowman as the avuncular but discomforted Ben Weeks, Ned’s lawyer brother. He is conflicted by his discomfort with Ned’s gayness and the promiscuity of the scene and there is a powerful unpicking of the fraternal dynamic as Ned’s demands of his brother are simply too much.
The production isn’t perfect. The first half feels slightly overlong with the factional infighting being sometimes repetitive and each scene is introduced verbally with a date and time but in an English accent. Is it meant to be a Brechtian device to take us out of the drama and to focus on the issues? I’m not sure, but it jars and disrupts the flow.
Despite these niggles “The Normal Heart” is a hugely important and prescient play, bearing witness to a tragic moment in history. It balances the personal and the political and delivers both polemic and pathos in equal measure centred around Ben Daniels’ towering performance. It’s a hit! Go and see it!! National Theatre All photos by Helen Maybanks 23 Sep – 6 Nov
London SE1 9PX
All photos by Helen Maybanks
The show runs from 23 Sep – 6 Nov
Looking for something different? We also recommend Witness for the Prosecution, award winning immersive theatre just down the road at County Hall