Paul T Davies reviews Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart which is getting its first London revival since 1986 at the National Theatre.
The Normal Heart.
The National Theatre, Olivier.
30 September 2021
Fuelled by rage, anger rightly targeted at the inaction of government and authority, powered by his own experiences, Larry Kramer’s autobiographical AIDS play gets its first major London revival since the first staging in 1986. And it is a stunning, heart-breaking production, with a first-class ensemble and staging. Gone are the AIDS headlines and accumulating death toll of the original staging. Dominic Cooke’s passionate direction and Vicki Mortimer’s almost empty set allows the play to move with clarity and pace, the words filling the auditorium, this is a play that does rage against the dying of the light. I won’t give a spoiler about how the production begins, but it’s beautiful and respectful.
Charting the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York city and based on his own experiences, time has matured Kramer’s play beautifully. Based on his own experiences of setting up The Gay Men’s Health Crisis then being forced out of his own organisation; Ned Weeks is effectively Kramer. His fury is aimed at the New York Times for lack of coverage, Mayor Koch of New York, medical slowness, but ultimately his rage is targeted at closeted gay men. Ben Daniels is superb as Ned, a shaking powerhouse of emotions, his loud mouth unwavering in its intensity, vulnerable when he falls in love for the first time with Felix, who then develops the disease. (A beautiful, heartbreaking performance by Dino Fetscher.) Occasionally, especially in the first act, Ned’s arguments are shrill, bordering on didactic, but now I really appreciate how well Kramer wrote arguments against himself. Time also allows us to laugh more freely and openly at the pinpoint humour of the play, much of it delivered by Danny Lee Wynter’s wonderfully sassy Southern queen Tommy. Liz Carr as Dr. Emma Brookner, is excellent, delivering news no one wants to hear, “Tell gay men to stop having sex”, and the parallels with our pandemic times are haunting, messages of denial and conspiracy theories abound. As Ned’s brother, Ben, building a two-million-dollar house as the AIDS charities battle for tiny dollars of funding, Robert Bowman is tender and questioning, brotherly love shining through.
The second half is an act full of powerful speeches, each one breaking your heart, igniting the fight for equality within your soul. The political is personal in every line of this play, and the company rise beautifully to that challenge. Simple music choices underline and support the text when necessary, and the tragedy and tenderness is intimate in the vast Olivier, the production is so skilled at drawing you in. When It’s A Sin was screened earlier this year on Channel 4, many gay men I know who are aged about 30 asked me, “Was it really like that?” Well yes, it was. Here’s the testimony. A beautiful, heart-breaking revival that contains some of the best performances you will see this year.