Review: The Normal Heart, National Theatre

Heartbreaking but fiercely essential work. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart receives a masterful revival courtesy of Dominic Cooke at the National Theatre

“The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual”

A flame lit in respectful silence, shirts whipped off to the pulsing synthline of ‘I Feel Love’, the opening moments of Dominic Cooke’s revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart are full of Pride and perfectly encapsulate one of the key dilemmas haunting its characters. It is New York City in the early 1980s and writer and activist Ned Weeks is struggling to make the wider world understand what to him seems obvious, an unidentified disease is scything through the gay community in alarming numbers.

Plays about AIDS have tended to the operatic in scale – Angels in America and The Inheritance both sprawling over two lengthy parts. So by comparison, The Normal Heart is over in a flicker, coming in well under three hours. And my lord is that a good thing, as the second half in particular is punishingly, essentially, brutal. Prior to the interval, there’s a beautiful sense of world-building – Weeks and his pals bonding over their shared need to do something, battling over the best way to do it. And Weeks also falls in love for the first time, a scene of combative flirting is as entertaining as it is erotic.

But tragedy is never far away. And the second half is constructed as one gut punch after another, allowing an expertly cast company to flex some serious dramatic muscle. Daniel Monks’ Mickey and Luke Norris’ Bruce both detail their devastating and different losses in heart-wrenching detail. A superb Liz Carr rails against the myopia and homophobia of a Reagan-era scientic establishment as impassioned doctor Emma Brookner whose experience at the heart of the epidemic is being ignored. The parallels of the fear of being in the midst of a health crisis with little information and a seemingly uncaring administration are not lost here.

At the heart, is Ben Daniels’ Ned, a loosely autobiographical figure whose confrontational nature and need for direct action is the driving force for so much of this action, even as his uncompromising behaviour lines him up against friends and colleagues who aren’t necessarily fully out of the closet, rightfully fearful of the impact of their lives and jobs. For all his swagger, Daniels’ shows how Ned’s emotions are so very close to the skin, something tested to the full in his shifting relationships with brother Ben (Robert Bowman) and lover Felix (an excellent Dino Fetscher). 

The Olivier remains in-the-round which helps to cultivate the intimacy of so much of this play. And the sparseness of Vicki Mortimer’s set design creates the perfect playing space under Paule Constable’s poignantly fluid lighting work. Credit too to make-up supervisor Sarah Lou Packham for the achingly detailed work which captures the haunting ravages of AIDS. And as locations and dates are read out by the cast at the beginning of each scene, there’s a powerful sense of the inexorable passage of time in a crisis, somehow agonisingly slow burning and yet lightning fast in the way that it strikes with deadly precision. Heartbreaking but fiercely essential work. 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Helen Maybanks
The Normal Heart is booking at the National Theatre until 6th November

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