Charting the early years of the epidemic in New York City from 1981 to 1984 – the years when Kramer’s own organisation Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) was in its infancy – The Normal Heart follows the fictional struggles of Jewish-American writer and gay activist Ned Weeks to drum up support in tackling the virus from the office of New York Mayor Ed Koch, as well as his own largely closeted gay community.
Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Bolstered by the brilliant Dr Emma Brookner, a physician, polio survivor and HIV researcher – who Kramer modeled on a real-life doctor, Linda Laubenstein – Ned forms an Aids advocacy group, a motley crew with ‘a lot of different styles that don’t quite mesh’, each of whom is suffering from ‘bereavement overload’ having already lost lovers and friends to the novel virus.
Dramatising his real-life battle to get Mayor Ed Koch (himself rumoured to be a closeted homosexual) to address the Aids crisis publicly, Kramer holds the state to account and exposes the lack of funding for research that could have potentially prevented thousands of deaths in the 1980s. Much like Kramer himself, who was eventually pushed from his own organisation, GMHC, The Normal Heart sees the group elect the more polite and palatable Bruce Niles as its president over its founder and driving force, the fiery and confrontational Ned. Meanwhile, Ned has become a near full-time carer for his partner Felix, a fashion writer at the New York Times, who himself is slowly dying of Aids.
Daniel Monks, Danny Lee Wynter and Henry Nott in The Normal Heart. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Designer Vicki Mortimer (The Visit, Follies) stages the production in the round, making the heavily scripted, storytelling-led play feel distinctly intimate. Brutalist benches carry the action from the streets of New York to the homes of the infected, and from hospital waiting rooms to the basement of a government building where a meeting with the mayor’s assistant is finally held. The sounds of car horns beeping and subway brakes screeching shift the action between scenes. A small fire – the centrepiece of a funeral in the opening scene – blazes passionately above the stage for the entirety of the show like an emblem of remembrance for those lost.
Cooke’s production doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the virus, showing us characters brandished with patches of sarcoma, with vomit down their fronts and, in one particularly graphic scene, frothing at the mouth.
The Normal Heart is a story fuelled by anger and fear. It premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in New York in 1985, when the Aids epidemic was still raging and its dire consequences were yet to be fully realised. It’s more political than other major New York-based Aids dramas, including Tony Kushner’s 1991 play Angels in America and Matthew Lopez’s 2018 play The Inheritance, which regard the crisis largely through the lens of personal relationships and the impact on the devastated gay community.
Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Like many of the great Aids dramas, it tells the story almost exclusively from the perspective of white men, but in a comment unusually prescient for the time, one character points out that the group should be representing black and brown faces too as well as lesbians and members of the trans community.
Through so much loss and anguish, The Normal Heart manages to be wickedly funny, lacing its darker moments with swift cracks of humour. This is largely down to a watertight cast, who carry Kramer’s story with love and care. Ben Daniels (The Crown) is deeply likeable as the story’s stoic, straight-talking protagonist Ned. Gruff and funny, he's the beacon of light guiding us through this bleak tale, bravely knocking against the conventional Bruce Niles (a smooth Luke Norris of Poldark fame) at every turn.
Liz Carr and Ben Daniels, The Normal Heart. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Actor and disability activist Liz Carr (Silent Witness) is a powerhouse as Dr Emma Brookner. She’s the story’s behind-the-scenes driving force for good and, on press night, earns a well-deserved cheer for her speech shaming the powers that be for rejecting her appeals for funding.
Watching The Normal Heart in 2021, a year in which society at large is building back cautiously while we learn to live with Covid-19, makes you conscious of just how isolating the Aids epidemic must have been for the gay community, who, as Ned points out, were living ‘at war in a country in peacetime’.
We’ve seen the impact and legacy of the Aids crisis brought closer to home this year, through Russell T Davies’ stunning TV drama It’s a Sin, and on stage, Jack Holden’s powerful play Cruise, both of which are set in London. But the gay community in New York was disproportionately ravaged by the virus, in large part due to the refusal of its mayor to fund life-saving research. As the fire burns fervently above Cooke’s revival, Kramer's mission to hold the office of Ed Koch to account lives on.
|What||The Normal Heart, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
23 Sep 21 – 06 Nov 21, 7:15 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£20 - £89|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|