The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer – National Theatre: Olivier
Larry Kramer’s 1987 play, The Normal Heart, is astonishing campaigning theatre. First staged in 1985, just before the AIDS epidemic had fully entered public consciousness, it rails against the refusal of US authorities to acknowledge anything was wrong. Over the previous four years a mysterious, fatal condition had escalated around the US and then the world, killing young gay men. Kramer, as a very early activist, had campaigned vociferously for official recognition and funding to tackle this disaster. In New York, faced with the (probably closeted) Mayor Ed Koch, Kramer and his friends hit a brick wall of homophobia and fear of public reaction, that allowed deaths to soar while years passed. The Normal Heart dramatises this period of campaigning, and the disagreements among those who found themselves becoming the voice of AIDS activism. It’s a historical play, but although its meaning changes with time it continues to be a current, and relevant drama. What was originally a cry of anger is now a document of past intolerance, and a warning.
Kramer’s drama is a highly autobiographical account in which the central character, Ned Weeks – a barely disguised version of himself – founds a movement, while constantly threatening to alienate his friends. Ben Daniels bestrides the stage as Weeks, intemperate and confrontational (happy to call the Mayor a cocksucker, in City Hall) but also a charming and honest figure, who suffers for being right. His message, that casual sex is killing men, is not what those recently liberated from repression want to hear. The political conflict within the movement is set against a wider disregard and deep social unease in a city that is deeply uneasy about gay men. Kramer balances the driving anger behind the play with characters who draw us in, from closeted banker Bruce Niles (Luke Norris), always fearful of what people will think, to Mickey Marcus (Daniel Monks), threatened with dismissal by the city authorities, and Tommy Boatwright, played by Danny Lee Wynter with humour, compassion and energy. There are few allies outside the gay world apart from Liz Carr’s doctor, Emma Brookner, who bravely stands up for the people she treats in increasing numbers. There is heartbreak, as the disease claims loved ones, but also a sense of people standing up to be counted and setting the foundations for change.
The Normal Heart is being revived at a time when it feels possible to forget the struggles of a previous generation, and to imagine it could never go back to that. Of course, in many parts of the world being gay is more dangerous than ever, and the play is a strong reminder that freedoms should not be taken for granted. It also reminds us that AIDS has not gone away – far from it – with an estimated 680,000 worldwide deaths in 2020. Nor is this a drama that only matters in the US. I have never attended a play that roused audience members to shout accusations – in this case directed against the Thatcher government’s response during the same period – at the curtain call. This is raw history, not yet ready to be consigned to the past. It is also compelling drama, simply but very effectively staged by Dominic Cooke on the Olivier’s in-the-round stage, and exactly the kind of work the National Theatre exists to stage.