The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
LGBT rights activist and author Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a seminal play on the rise of the AIDS epidemic and those who struggled to bring it to the world’s attention. Returning to London for the first time since its premiere in 1985, and directed by Dominic Cooke, it remains as powerful, relevant and moving as ever.
The group stand around a small fire, sombre and solemn, in the opening scene. Donna Summer’s I Feel Love plays shortly after, a jarring contrast, complete with strobe lights, typifying the hedonistic times. Cut to Dr Emma Brookner’s office (a razor-sharp performance by Lizz Carr), where she diagnoses young gay men – a prelude to what’s to come.
Ben Daniels is a revelation as journalist, novelist and activist Ned Weeks (based on Kramer). Cynical about promiscuous relationships, Ned leads the way in trying to get the government and leading publications to take the epidemic seriously. The character is often hot-headed but grounded in his opinions, and one cannot help but side with his logic and determination. He and his friends together create an advocacy group fighting for gay rights, trying to reach out to as many organisations and media outlets as they can. However, not everyone thinks like Ned: Bruce Nyles (Luke Norris) is hesitant to reveal his sexuality lest he loses his job as vice president in a bank, Mickey Marcus (Daniel Monks) is all for free love, while Danny Lee Wynter’s Tommy Boatwright provides much of the humour, a self-proclaimed “Southern bitch” who remains a cool peacemaker.
Kramer’s play highlights the ignorance and prejudice within a system that failed thousands. The audience becomes swept into the story, and the affecting monologues by Ned – whether to his lawyer brother Ben (Robert Bowman), or in one of the last arguments he has with his lover, Felix (a memorable performance by Dino Fetscher) – are powerful and moving. Ned and Felix’s chemistry is organic and palpable, and all the more tragic when it ends.
Although Vicki Mortimer’s sparse set design leaves something to be desired, it does focus the attention on the story and on a disease that shook the world. The script is not too prosaic, leaving enough space for emotions to emerge; there isn’t a dry eye in the house in the closing scene, showing Kramer’s words can still stir 30 years on.
The Normal Heart is at the National Theatre from 23rd September until 6th November 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.