WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHEN?: Saturday 25 September, opens 30 September, booking to 6 November 2021
WHERE?: Olivier Theatre, National RUNTIME?: 160 minutes (including 20-minute interval)
New York was the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic crisis in the 80s and 90s and, before Channel 4’s award-winning It’s A Sin in 2021, theatre’s response to the issue had very much been American.
- Read on for reasons including how The Normal Heart is a well-cast rallying cry against a Government not listening
We’re here tonight because this venue did such a perfect job in reviving Angels In America in 2017 starring Andrew Garfield which, before The Normal Heart, is perhaps the work best known as theatre’s HIV/AIDS response.
The Normal Heart was written in 1985 by Larry Kramer and focuses on the crisis in New York between 1981 and 1984 as seen through the eyes of writer/activist Ned Weeks, the gay founder of a prominent HIV advocacy group.
Weeks is played strongly here by Ben Daniels (see below) who is encouraged by Dr Emma Brookner (a fierce Liz Carr in a motorised wheelchair) who is treating men in hospital and trying to work out what is making them ill.
Dr Brookner believes HIV/AIDS could be passed on through sex and pleads with Weeks to make the case in the gay community for abstinence as a response to the pandemic but it is a call unwelcomed by those who have fought long and hard to enjoy the sexual freedoms they have recently won.
The Normal Heart was written before Angels In America and is unflinching in its anger, directing it as Weeks does towards an establishment that is choosing not to act upon what is going on under its nose. Weeks revels in public confrontations against wishes of closeted lover Felix, a journalist on the New York Times, which is writing little about the pandemic.
Richard Cant is especially good in a number of roles but particularly as the closeted assistant to the mayor who is annoyed by Weeks’ bullishness yet acknowledges that the louder he shouts the more difficult he is to ignore.
Elsewhere in the cast Danny Lee Wynter provides some much-needed comedy, Luke Norris is well-cast as the textbook advocacy group president who lacks bite and Fetscher (Torch Song, Turbine Theatre) makes the most of a role that really tugs at the heartstrings.
We’re also here because director Dominic Cooke has been behind 2 absolute triumphs in this venue in Follies and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but apart from an early flourish in using Donna Summer’s I Feel Love to depict the era’s hedonism we find little else here to remind us of those highs.
Perhaps it is because the staging in the round leaves us feeling close to the action but not necessarily connecting as one would expect with such a fine cast and such engaging material. We want to see every facial expression but simply can’t with a cast trying to playing to an audience at 360 degrees.
Daniel Monks (Teenage Dick, Donmar) overcomes all of this in his final moment delivering a devastating moment in which the hurt of his character Mickey Marcus, who works in the health sector and finds his emplyment under threat by his activisim, is laid bare.
Martin Sheen was nominated for an Olivier when the play opened at the Royal Court in 1986 and Weeks is a gift of a part which Daniels does justice.
But we were left with the abiding feeling that, while it was important to remember the fear of a pandemic singling out a discriminated-against group and an establishment not listening as it was decimating that community, this is a play about activism and anger.
At the time it was written it was a groundbreaking and hugely important statement and piece of theatre. But looking at it through the retrospectoscope of 2021 it is unlucky to be revived now so recently after it has been eclipsed by something as fresh and brilliant as It’s A Sin which will be so much more relevant to a UK audience because of its setting.