'The Normal Heart' review - a fascinating mirror of debates with raw power
It is astonishing to think that Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical play debuted in 1985, right in the midst of the AIDS crisis. No wonder it feels like a missive from the battlefield, blood and shrapnel clinging to every word. Staged during a different kind of plague (in fact, this revival was delayed by the pandemic), it takes on new meaning, too, but this is first and foremost a terrible cry from history.
The play’s standout character is the late Kramer’s avatar: infuriating activist Ned Weeks, who thinks that the only way to get the bigoted, fearful establishment to take this mysterious illness seriously is to make as much noise as possible – even if that means publicly condemning New York’s mayor and the silent New York Times. But that brings him into conflict with the other members of his gay activist group, partly because they favour more diplomatic efforts, and partly because they’re worried about their jobs and anonymity.
Of course, Ned is right in that more lives are being lost every day, and it doesn’t help that many men are still having unprotected sex because his colleagues don’t want to dictate lifestyle choices. But Ned is too abrasive and alienating, and there is an element of ego in his taking ownership of the cause. He’s also been on the margins of his own community, uneasy about promiscuity and ambivalent about relationships, so has less to lose in arguing for temporary abstinence. The tragic irony is that he does finally discover love, but too late.
This unwieldy play is a fascinating mirror of those debates between the campaigners. At times, it gently draws us in with poignant personal stories. But often – too often – it’s pugilistic, battering us with its lengthy diatribes. That’s forgivable given its origins in protest theatre, when calling out these monstrous injustices would have been revelatory, however it’s less effective now, particularly when recent dramas like It’s A Sin or the recently Tony-garlanded The Inheritance covered similar terrain with a lighter touch.
Yet there’s no disputing the raw power of the work, its jagged anger and howl of pain. The second half, in particular, really goes for the jugular, and left my audience in tears. Ben Daniels, excellent throughout as Ned, is particularly strong when he and his lover (an intensely moving Dino Fetscher) face a final, wrenching separation. Liz Carr brings cold fury to Dr Emma Brookner – based on the pioneering AIDS researcher and clinician Dr Linda Laubenstein – as she savages the inaction and petty rivalries of the medical industry.
There’s strong work from Luke Norris as Ned’s temperamental opposite, the closeted Bruce, and Daniel Monks as Mickey, who passionately defends freedom of choice. But you do long for some relief from the clamour, and it comes via a very funny Danny Lee Wynter, undercutting the pomposity as “Southern bitch” Tommy, and a quieter turn from Robert Bowman as Ned’s lawyer brother, who wrestles with his belief that Ned’s sexuality is a sickness.
Dominic Cooke’s stark, in-the-round production just features a few grey benches in Vicki Mortimer’s set, emphasising the feel of an austere debating chamber. The one purely theatrical touch is the lighting of a memorial flame, which flickers above our heads throughout. Really, this talky play could use more help. Left this bare, small irritants are magnified – like the actors introducing scene locations in English accents, then switching to (variable) American ones.
But every so often, Kramer’s polemic absolutely knocks the breath out of you. The description of how prejudice stripped one man of his dignity in death is unforgettable, as is the raw shame of another character who has to make professional compromises. Perhaps most searing, and something we now understand all too well, is his point that you can never separate health and politics, and that you have to advocate for what you need – even if you lose friends along the way.
Photo credit: Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart (Photo by Helen Maybanks)