The Normal Heart has returned to the UK in its first major production since the original, and taking over the National Theatre’s Oliver stage, directed by Dominic Cooke (in a co-production with his Picturehouse production company) it is quite the return. In many ways, Kramer’s is a time capsule of that time of dark desperation in 1980s New York. It’s a period piece and one specific to that city where of course Kramer began first Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later ACT UP, the first grassroots responses to AIDS. The play is a history lesson to be sure, but it’s also a play for today, a play about injustice, about standing up and standing with your community and those you love.
The strength of this production, alongside Larry Kramer’s still electric writing, are the cast who bring it eloquently to life. Led by Ben Daniels as Ned Weeks (and Kramer’s alter ego) who manages to bring the burning anger of the piece along with honest vulnerability. He’s also adept at bringing out the humour in Ned, who is, as he at one point declares, ‘aware he’s an asshole’. In Daniels’ hands there’s a self-aware, self-deprecating element to him that endears us to Ned, and brings lightness to the darkest of scenes. There’s a lot in Ned that could in the wrong hands make him unlikeable—and yes, that asshole—but the degree of humour and vulnerability Daniels gives him, both pulls the audience in to listen to what he has to say, while breaking their hearts along with his in the process.
Robert Bowman does wonderful work with the difficult role of Ben Weeks. A tricky part in his antagonism with his brother at the centre of the action. Bowman does subtle, eloquent work in pulling out the relationship, and the love between them. Bowman also wonderfully captures a man who loves his brother deeply but knows he has engrained prejudices about who he is. A wonderful moment from the front of the stage seats was seeing him wipe away tears at the end of a scene. Moving and understated, he brings the Weeks family dynamic—seen in greater depth in Kramer’s sequel The Destiny of Me—to the heart of his performance.
Liz Carr as Dr Emma Brookner brings a tour-de-force performance of rage laced with humour. Thankfully also shifting to employing an actual wheelchair user in the role also allows the play to feel like a more authentic parallel in Emma’s experience with the men she treats. The inclusion too of Daniel Monks’ disability subtly but effectively into his character Mickey—including a script revision to reference this—adds yes, representation but also dimensions to how we understand these characters and their experience of the world. Similarly in casting Tommy Boatright with a mixed-race actor, Danny Lee Wynter, in the role makes this self-confessed ‘Southern Bitch’ and his experiences of the world take on many new connotations too.
There are some directorial issues, specifically that despite being staged ‘in the round’ with stage seating, much of the action isn’t mindful of that. For much of the time this is a minor irritation, but when the final scene is directed facing away from those in the ‘stage seats’ the play does lose something of its staging impact.
The design choice, similarly, while not a deal-breaker in terms of affecting the play, loses some impact. A stripped-back set of several plain benches, which serve multiple purposes. Minimal props—phones, beer bottles, documents—fill it out. A neon pink triangle in illuminates the floor at the close, while after a slightly odd ‘prayer circle’ beginning a flame burns above the performance having been lit in the opening scene. It’s at once pared back and a bit heavy-handed.
The abstract setting does work for a play in which the words are the power, but this visual effect of ‘nowhere in particular’ feels at odds with the play’s specificity, its New York, 1980s setting. That said the choice to have the actors announce the date and location of every scene remedies a now problematic element for audiences, a lack of awareness of the history they’re witnessing. It might seem in some ways a clunky device, though no more so than plays that use projections to announce where they are. It can’t be assumed that audiences today would know details about the period—and so intrinsic are they to the details of Kramer’s piece, it makes sense to announce them—with an AIDS timeline included in the programme, it helps serve the play’s wider purpose; education and activism. The Normal Heart is of course a key pivotal moment in the narrative of AIDS because it was one of the first works to take the narrative out of the community, to a broader audience. Now, arguably it is doing the same, taking that story back to audiences who may not know that story.
Carr in particular is skilled at conveying the empathy Emma has with her patients, her grief and caring for them, and Kramer’s brilliantly searing political tirades. She rightly gets mid-show applause for her tearing down the assembled medical representatives on their failures in responding to AIDS, and not for the first time or the last one wonders if we could do with more Dr Emma Brookners—and indeed more Liz Carrs—telling those who need to hear it to get their house in order.
Kramer’s words too are plucked white-hot from the flames. There’s a sense of urgency that only times of true crisis can muster. They seem more energised than ever after 18 months of theatrical stasis, a reminder maybe of the power words on stage can have. But there’s also a very real sense of the emotional devastation in his words too.
Because it’s a moving tale, as well as a political one. Because politics is useless without emotion behind it. This production finds them particularly so in Dino Fetscher’s Felix; the man who Ned finally loves, and who he then loses to AIDS. His shift from confident and sassy, more than a match for Ned’s endless answers to everything, to quietly defeated by illness is subtle and heart-wrenching. More so than the final scene where he and Ned ‘marry’ in his hospital bed, his penultimate scene, trying to ensure everything of his is left to Ned, speaks to the quiet business and sadness of death. Fetscher delivers it with sensitivity and heart. Similarly moving is Luke Norris as Bruce. A Stoic counterbalance to Daniels/Ned for much of the play. He has two moments of heartbreaking brilliance. Once when he removes Ned from GMHC, and the air of genuine regret and sensitivity he brings to their friendship elevates the story. Probably the most affecting moment in the entire piece falls to Norris when he recounts the story of Albert’s final hours. A tale to stand in for the hundreds who had similar final moments and resting places. Norris lets the harrowing detail of Kramer’s words come through with a deceptively simple performance; honest, restrained, and quietly devastating.
The direct politics might have faded somewhat, but the emotion remains. The simplicity really of the struggle to be seen, to be heard are at the heart of what Kramer was saying. Is saying still. His ‘I belong to a culture’ speech is a rallying cry to know your history and own it. For Ned Weeks in the play, it’s a case of taking up space in the face of a situation, of a government, of a society, that would deny it. For today’s LGBTQ+ folks, it’s about remembering that culture and those who were lost along the way.
This production is a timely reminder that we belong to a culture. And may we all, when called upon, muster the same righteous, necessary rage as Larry Kramer to claim that culture and fight for it.
By Dr Emily Garside
The Normal Heart runs until November 6th at London’s National Theatre.