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‘The Normal Heart’ review

Theatre, Drama National Theatre , South Bank Until Saturday November 6 2021
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
The Normal Heart, National Theatre, 2021
Photo by Helen Maybanks Liz Carr and Ben Daniels

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

When it hits its stride, Larry Kramer’s 1985 Aids drama still feels thrillingly urgent

In another timeline, Dominic Cooke’s revival of the late Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 Aids drama ‘The Normal Heart’ would have opened at the National Theatre in something like February, with a skeleton cast performing to a one-third-full, socially distanced Olivier.

As it happened, things got both worse and better: the third lockdown derailed the intended opening. But now ‘The Normal Heart’ finally arrives, it’s with a full cast and audience. While it’s impossible to ignore the parallels – and bitter differences – between the Western responses to Aids and Covid, the play’s programming feel less of a comment on our present than it might have done in the pre-vaccine era.

An extremely thinly disguised account of the polymath Kramer’s own activism in the three years that preceded its premiere, ‘The Normal Heart’ is about how a few mavericks from the New York City gay community desperately tried to raise awareness of the mystery illness killing their friends. Mostly, they’re reluctant: being openly gay was not a smart career move in the early ’80s. Relatively matter-of-fact depictions of stifling prejudice now feel absolutely shocking, which gives the play new power.

Nonetheless, the first half lacks something in Cooke’s stripped-back production, which opens with the silent lighting of a memorial flame segueing into a pummelling ‘I Feel Love’, but otherwise contents itself to be fairly minimalist. Kramer’s text is meticulous as it layers up the account of how livewire Ned Weeks (the Kramer character, played by Ben Daniels), becomes radicalised to the cause after falling under the influence of Liz Carr’s flinty, impassioned Dr Emma Brookner (another lightly fictionalised stand-in, this time for the real-life Dr Linda Laubenstein). She has sussed out that the disease killing her gay patients is sexually transmitted – and she implores Ned to get the word out to an apathetic, embarrassed world. 

It’s solid, and certainly you can’t fault the dialogue’s ability to offer a crisp information dump. But despite Ned’s refreshing antihero-ish recklessness and irascibility, and a winning turn from Danny Lee Wynter as his arch Southern colleague Tommy,  it feels lacking in viscera, a useful play rather than an impassioned one. 

That all changes in a belter of a second half in which Cooke’s decision to effectively bet everything on his formidable cast and Kramer’s blisteringly angry monologues pays off. Initially, hotly tipped Australian actor Daniel Monks – lead in a major West End production of ‘The Seagull’ that was forced to shut last March – doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to get his teeth into in the role of Mickey, an affable worker for the state health authority who falls in with Ned and his cohorts. But a frazzled monologue in which a physically and emotionally drained Mickey rails exhaustedly against Ned’s sledgehammer tactics and inflexible anti-sex message is a tour de force moment that really brings the production alive.

The energy levels steadily build throughout the second half, which begins with Daniels’s quicksilver Ned sabotaging a meeting with a representative from the mayor’s office. Kramer is impressively, agonisingly self-aware in showing how Ned’s righteous fury both drives the campaign and recklessly endangers it. Our sympathies grow for Bruce (Luke Norris), the campaign’s straitlaced president, especially when he too gets a monologue, an agonised account of how he helped a mutual friend home to Arizona to die.

Carr earns whoops of applause for her moment in the spotlight, as Dr Brookner blazingly excoriates a medical board for its apathy and self-interest in underfunding Aids research and refusing to work with the French (who’d made greater advances in the field, but the US didn’t want them to get the glory – yes, it’s a bit expository telling us this but you hardly notice when Carr is in full flow).

Really though, it comes down to Daniels’s Ned. He is a fascinating character, a ball of unbridled passion with a heart of pure gold… but also, in the kindest way, a total dick. While you should take any self-portrait with a certain pinch of salt, it’s the complexity of Ned that gives the play its emotional authority. In Ned’s final speech, he lashes out at himself for not having done more, and it’s the genuine sense of self-reproach from Kramer and awareness of how he fucked up – although crucially, how he succeeded – that makes the character tick. And Daniels is brilliant: bristling and unsentimental, perpetually on an emotional knife-edge between blind fury and tender tears.

‘The Normal Heart’ is a dispatch from the frontline of a war that is, to a certain extent, now over. But once it gets into its stride, Cooke’s production is neither dated nor subservient to our current woes. It is a burning nugget of recent history, a story of people trying frantically to fight back from the brink of annihilation. It hasn’t lost its heat at all – it’s white-hot, forever.

Details

Venue name: National Theatre
Venue website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Venue phone: 020-74523000
Address: South Bank
London
SE1 9PX
Transport: Rail/Tube: Waterloo
Price: £20-£89. Runs 2hr 45min

Dates And Times

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