The Normal Heart

Reviewer's rating

Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart’ (1985) is recognised as one of the most influential plays to come out of the AIDS/HIV crisis. Its influence is obvious both on that epic of the 1990s, ‘Angels in America’, but also more recently on Matthew Lopez’s ‘The Inheritance.’ Yet it has not received a performance here for many years, and this new production at the National offers us a fresh chance to appraise its dramatic staying-power and relevance to our own times.

From the rapid-fire sequence of hard-hitting opening scenes, it is clear that its power to shock, challenge and move audiences is undiminished. While it is a heavily autobiographical piece, younger theatregoers don’t need to know anything of Kramer’s life to pick up the play’s message and essence. The play also bears additional contemporary resonances that echo across the decades from one pandemic to another.

First of all, it stands as a record of the panic, fear, and incomprehension of the early years of AIDS/HIV in New York City, when no one knew what ‘the plague’ was, what could be done to treat or prevent it, and where gay men seemed to be overwhelmingly the victims, both of the disease and panicked social vilification. But over and above this documentary quality there is a debate going on over the nature of activism: is it the mouthy, tiresome, difficult people who make a difference or the quiet backroom organisers? How does radical change happen, and is the human price attached to it worth paying? None of this is easy, then or now.

The play stands or falls on the quality of the performance of the turbulent activist, Ben Weeks, who stands in for Kramer himself. Here Ben Daniels delivers a truly magnificent, richly layered performance, depicting the courage and eloquence of protest against government indifference and community apathy, but also not afraid to reveal the monomaniacal and obsessional qualities that clearly made Kramer so hard to work with.

But the reason the play still works so well is that the playwright rather than the activist ensures that other views are represented. First of all, Weeks is made more vulnerable and appealing through a beautifully modulated love story that burns slowly through to an affecting tragic end – here the gentle, ironic contribution of Dino Fetscher softens the edges of many scenes and adds contrasting comic touches. Another emotional perspective is provided by Weeks’ brother, a successful corporate lawyer, who loves his sibling but is uneasy around his sexuality. The trajectory of their well-intentioned collisions and reconciliations is a nuanced iteration of family discomfort with homosexuality that is still relevant today.

Seeing the play again makes this reviewer realise how operatic it is, in that all while there are plenty of scenes of collective conflict and conviviality each lead character is assigned an eloquent monologue, like an aria, to get their viewpoint across. All the players seize their opportunities with gusto, and no more so than the physically diminutive but hugely forceful Liz Carr, as the polio-afflicted pioneering doctor who excoriates both the medical establishment and the gay community for their lethargy in responding to the crisis.

We also receive a diverse interplay of views from the other members of the gay health and welfare group that Weeks founds: Luke Norris embodies the closeted establishment figure, Bruce, who prefers to work within rather than confront the system; Daniel Monks finds brittle energy for the disabled government worker, Mickey, who refuses to accept that the onset of a pandemic should replace liberation with fear and caution; and Danny Lee Wynter offers a scene-stealing portrait of a warm-hearted Southerner, who seeks the best in all points of view while never missing a chance to inject humour into desperate situations. He is also one of the most convincing lilting Southern accents I have heard on the English stage for many a year.

Vicki Mortimer’s stripped-down in-the-round set design offers a nod to the elegant simplicity of the set in ‘The Inheritance’. Both these plays are very wordy, and the neutral austerity of the physical setting allows the actors to focus on the text without distraction and play to all sides of the auditorium. Again, the lighting design, a couple of simple halos of strip lighting with additional effects as needed lets the many short scenes flow onwards without effort.

The production demonstrates that, unlike many plays that have become monuments, this one still speaks to our own time with undiminished power and uneasy complexity.