In the first London revival of Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play, The Normal Heart perfectly portrays the devastating anger and crippling isolation of the 80s gay community
Starring Ben Daniels, Liz Carr, Luke Norris and Dino Fetscher
Written right in the midst of history, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart charts the beginning of the AIDS epidemic from the eye of the hurricane: New York City. Serving as somewhat of a time capsule, The Normal Heart leaves no holds barred when it comes to condemning a prejudiced and blinkered system that was content to ignore the plight of an entire community because it didn’t affect them. Throughout the play, one can sense the unparalleled rage that fuelled Kramer’s writing, as many characters condemn and tear down the government’s lack of action.
Showing the rise of AIDS from 1981 to 1984, The Normal Heart follows Ned Weeks (Ben Daniels), as he forms a HIV advocacy group to try and encourage support and research into the unknown disease that was decimating a community that was only just starting to walk and was still existing on the shadows of society, despite its new-found legality. Modelled after Kramer himself, Weeks is eventually ousted from his position as president of the group and replaced by a more palatable Bruce Niles (Luke Norris) due to Ned’s incendiary habits. However, despite their campaigning, it doesn’t stop Ned’s partner Felix (Dino Fetscher) from contracting AIDS, and even Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr) is prevented from finding any solid answers when she is denied funding for her life-changing research.
It is important when considering a text like this to acknowledge its history. Premiering in 1985, The Normal Heart is not a retrospective on the AIDS epidemic. It doesn’t have a concept of an end. It does not know the tremendous scale to which it would grow. Even though it gives a voice and a personhood to personal aspects of AIDS (seeing Felix slowly succumb to the disease, and hearing Bruce describe the sub-human ways in which his own partner was treated after he died are truly devastating), it is far more political in nature. It is a damning commentary on how an entire institution, when the chips were down, ultimately decided to ignore the issues of a marginalised community.
Even though there is a tremendous temptation to compare the ongoing pandemic with the AIDS epidemic, as the audience sat there, equipped with masks, with hand sanitiser available at every entrance, there really isn’t a comparison to be made. Living through coronavirus, as scary as it is, is supported by actual medical research, with vaccines and formal governmental planning. As noted within the play, Ned states their community is living “at war in a country in peacetime”. While the gay community was suffering, the rest of the world was ignorant to the plight, even when they asked for help. This shadow looms over every moment of the production, the weight of Kramer’s broken loss felt in each word.
The minimal set design by Vicki Mortimer, with a burning flame suspended above all the action in an act of permanent remembrance, hones the audiences attention solely into the performers. With just a few benches to mark the space, the action seems almost abstracted from specifics. The show isn’t necessarily about the acts of any one person or group of people, but that there are countless of stories just like this one. The community was left isolated and alone, and watching the actors on a small circle of a stage, surrounded in the round, it really does feel like a heartless world all around.
What is especially prescient, as a queer man, is witnessing the sheer confusion and terror of a disease that entirely rips love apart. There are couples who do not know whether they can touch, or hug, or kiss, as there is so little understanding of how transmission is achieved. The subhuman way that casualties of AIDS suffered is genuinely devastating, and the lack of respect that institutions had for these relationships that were entirely uprooted is monstrous. It is practically impossible as a queer man not to put yourself in the shoes of the characters and realise that this historical events forms the bedrock upon which our current community exists. When people question why pride events are necessary, it is because we exist in the same universe that sat by and both allowed and did not attempt to prevent this from happening.
Unfortunately, The Normal Heart concludes its run at the National Theatre tonight, but its message and its damning commentary shall continue in the minds of those who witnessed it.