The Normal Heart – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Larry Kramer

Director: Dominic Cooke

While our current pandemic has sparked interest in other pandemics, this revival of Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama is part of a wider reassessment of history that saw a new production of Angels in America at the National in 2017, and The Inheritance at the Young Vic in 2018, which looked how AIDS has affected younger generations of gay men. Kramer’s 1985 play takes us right back to when young men started dying of a mysterious illness. It captures perfectly the fear and paranoia of the times.

Dominic Cooke’s production begins electrically with a minute’s silence that ends in a disco to the pulsating beats of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. But when the lights come up again, they reveal a hospital waiting room in New York where men wait for their diagnoses from Dr Emma Brookner. As a man scurries out of the doctor’s office, his face covered in lesions from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, the men talk about the new illness affecting gay men in the city.

Dismayed at the lack of interest the media have in this illness – so new it doesn’t even have a name – author Ned Weeks, based on Kramer himself, is determined to galvanise his community into action. He’s met with resistance immediately. He finds that men don’t want to talk about it while other men are afraid to help in case their faces appear on the pages of newspapers or on TV screens. They could lose their jobs.

With little information to guide her, Emma suggests that gay men should stop having sex until doctors discover how the virus – if it is a virus – is transmitted, Ned approves of this strategy as he already believes that the gay community is too promiscuous.

Today this rebuke of promiscuity sails very close to ‘slut-shaming’ and it would be easy to accuse Ned of harbouring homophobic self-hatred. He wants gay men to stop arranging their lives around the clubs and the bathhouses. One character even suggests that the ban on gay marriage has led to this life of ruinous licentiousness. Ned also compares gay men who ignore the crisis to American Jews who put their heads in the sand when they first heard about the persecution of European Jews in Nazi Germany.

Fortunately, Kramer provides balance to his play and among Ned’s colleagues in the group he has founded to raise awareness are those who challenge his moralistic stance. They enjoy sex and see it as a symbol of liberation that was so hard fought for at Stonewall in the 1960s. It’s too soon to ban it again.

Ben Daniels is utterly convincing as Ned who rails against everything and argues with everyone. Even his pauses, where he stands hands on hips in double denim, are weighted in suppressed energy. As Ned’s boyfriend, Dino Fetscher is lighter and more carefree but it is Danny Lee Wynter’s performance that adds the comedy to this otherwise tragic story. In contrast to the fast talking New Yorkers, Wynter’s slow Southern drawl is a delight.

Most of the opposition to Ned’s moralising comes from Mickey, and here Daniel Monks is heartbreakingly sad, brought down with grief and guilt and increasingly he exudes weariness and despondency. Also giving an astonishing performance is Liz Carr as doctor Emma and from her wheelchair gives the most incendiary speech in the play, producing spontaneous applause from the audience.

These performances give life to a play that itself was part of the way the gay community fought back against society’s dismissal of the deaths of hundreds and then thousands of people whose lives were presumed to be expendable. Although written in the 80s, Kramer’s play still screams in anger.

Runs until 6 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Astonishing performances

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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