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FringeReview UK 2021

The Normal Heart

National Theatre, London

Genre: American Theater, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Designer Vicki Mortimer and Costume Designer Lisa Duncan, lit by Paule Constable, with Sound Design Carolyn Downing. Movement Director Liz Ranken, Fight Director Brett Yount, Dialect Coach Penny Dyer, Company Voice Work Jeanette Nelson, Associate Director Josh Seymour. Till November 6th.


Perhaps it’s for Larry Kramer too who died in May 2020. As the revival of his 1985 masterpiece The Normal Heart opens we’re in the Olivier’s metalled O with men shrouded in a circle: one lights a brazier that ascends to the heaven of another neon-lit circle and stays there.

It reminds us Vicki Mortimer designed Charlotte Jones’ Quaker-inspired The Meeting too. However disco-lights flash to Donna Summer and dancing men seconds later, we never lose the sacramental underscoring this shouty tragedy. It’s often spotlit too by Paule Constable in a gamut of styles.

Kramer’s relentless pace both mirrors AIDS and its denials and the way Greek tragedy ratchets up to a final harrowing. Mortimer keeps the space swept. Hospital beds, chairs, very little clutters the stage, also rimmed by a neon O: as above, so below. Dominic Cooke ensures the whole two hours forty-five is lean, concentrated, letting up only for an eddy of release. They’re rare too.

It’s the first UK revival since the Royal Court’s UK premiere of 1986, just at the point when the AIDS virus was identified and threatened to render the play’s politics obsolescent. Edgy voluble Ned Weeks (Ben Daniels flued and sanded, unyielding yet vulnerable) is somehow infected too, but vocally.

At the start he’s the detached writer, then helpless as Elander Moore’s Craig Donner collapses in a visceral fit before him, first victim he’s met; though as Liz Carr’s rasping Dr Emma Brookner assures him, 41 have died and no-one’s funding research. Government refusal in the face of escalating deaths is what the drama chronicles: Reagan refuses to even use the term ‘AIDS’. It’s not simply homophobic, it prophesies the pandemic Kramer died in.

Tonally Carr’s already pitched to the max, finding an ounce more for her last magnificent tirade to a committee (including Richard Cant as another doctor). She singles out Weeks as her megaphone. There’s little nuance: stop having sex, crusade. It’s something Kramer interrogated in his work, winning few friends.

Here though it’s Brookner who convinces Weeks. So Daniels’ Weeks hardens too, like a tonal armadillo; as if Brookner’s voice has been passed on. There’s bleak comedy Every so often Weeks reports back to be told his campaign is useless.

Weeks is Kramer down to the final confrontation with Luke Norris’ Bruce Niles, ex-Marine and acceptable chair of the organisation Weeks called into being. If not quite verbatim theatre it’s what Kramer makes of it – theatre as polemic as theatre – that matters. How does this play stand up?

After 36 years The Normal Heart being overtaken by events is irrelevant: celibacy vs safe sex, identifying the virus (had this been heterosexual, imagine the speed). It’s the clarion of danger, the visceral debates and furious disagreements, above all the sudden intrusion of someone’s death, these are dateless and the drama emerges purged of all need of update. We know what happens. We’re still gripped in the permanence of human agency and rage and suffering.

Alongside the careful banker Niles, Weeks gathers to him Daniel Monks’ Stonewall veteran Mickey Marcus, who’s fought long for the right to sexual freedom, eloquent on how this defines the gay community. Poised on a crutch, he blisters back Weeks’ new-found puritan creed.

The inevitable peacemaker, Danny Lee Wynter’s Tommy Boatwright does his best as a self-deprecating ‘southern bitch’ to reconcile them all. As medical orderly he brings the front line with him: ‘a lot of mommas flying into town not understanding why their sons have upped and died from ‘pneumonia’.

His one story is bleak enough, yet it’s Norris’ Niles who tops it with his harrowing moment: the death of his lover Albert, flown back to his mother, thrown out with the rubbish till bribery gets him cremated.

The world’s early response to AIDS you can read by lightning in a few scenes. Weeks pushes activism, the rest for amelioration of suffering. It’s a meeting with closeted City official Hiram Keebler (biggest of Richard Cant’s three roles, a delicious confection of camp self-importance and defensiveness) that polarises Weeks from the rest of them. In excoriating detail – pin-money channelled in return for near-silence, especially over the source –Daniels’ one-man blowtorch is swerved by each in turn. With Keebler’s exit there’s only one outcome.

As deep – it ought to be deeper – it’s Weeks’ relationship with his lover and brother that harden into all he’s got. Early meeting with NYT fashion writer Felix Turner (Dino Fetscher) fails in recruitment but succeeds in love despite Weeks’ best efforts in the most richly comic scene of all to combat it.

First Daniels lectures Fetscher’s come-on Felix with the extent of Jewish and American complicity in the Holocaust. Even that doesn’t put him off, as Fetscher memorably pushes Turner’s surface adjustment to accommodate as Daniels exudes self-sabotage. And Weeks doesn’t even remember their original sexual encounter. The warmest relationship, it’s also harrowing as the inevitable happens: we start with throwing around of health food, signifier of a final journey.

It’s Robert Bowman’s lawyer Ben Weeks who’s memorably tested as heteronormative, mildly homophobic and doing his best to accept his uncompromising brother’s stance: not less than total acceptance. Not just money (and he’s really obsessed with building his $2 million house), acting pro bono or serving on the board of his brother’s group, but getting better at hugging him back. Bowman and Daniels circle round each other, nudging secrets that don’t flatter either. Bowman makes you sympathise with his warmth, then you feel the trap-door.

There’s fine work too from Henry Nott’s Grady, preppy hedonist volunteer for the helpline, and Jonathan Dryden-Taylor, Daniel Krikler, Lucas Rush and Samuel Thomas in ensemble roles.

Carolyn Downing’s sound design only occasionally allows set-pieces like the Summers, exuding quiet menace. Lisa Duncan’s costume designer riffles through the naturalism of casual to zany to stuffed-shirt, movement director Liz Ranken swirls ensemble scenes yet the great ones remain memorably axial. Fight director Brett Yount goes for believable physical tension.

One of Kramer’s strengths easy to overlook lies in the varying registers, use of language, tone of his protagonists. Granted they’re based on originals, but his ear’s acute. Only once was there a slip of intonation from a minor character. Credit to dialect coach Penny Dyer and company voice from Jeanette Nelson here.

It’s this familial trio of Daniels, Bowman and Fetscher, in at a death, that sets a seal on a time of murder by deliberate negligence. We’ve seen Daniels shed invulnerability and armour throughout Act Two, and by the end he too in a single howling embrace joins the chorus, and doesn’t stand apart. An outstanding revival. If you see one play this autumn, make it this one.