The battle to understand AIDS
“I repeat: Our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake. Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die. In all the history of homosexuality we have never before been so close to death and extinction. Many of us are dying or already dead.”
Larry Kramer In 1,112 and counting
Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart is largely based on his own experiences between 1981 and 1984 where he was in the forefront of men trying to understand why gay men were dying of skin lesions and pulmonary disorders. Ben Daniels plays Ned Weeks loosely based on Kramer himself.
We here in the UK remember Larry Kramer as the screenwriter for the film of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. He died of pneumonia in May 2020.
Liz Carr plays Dr Emma Brookner, based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein of New York University Center who was a victim of polio and also in a wheelchair. She matter of factly tells her young male, gay patients what is wrong with them, often presenting a prognosis as to how long they have got to live. In a diagnostic meeting with Ned Weeks she urges the gay community to give up sex, which tends to fall on stony ears.
The play opens with a silent funereal tribute with the whole cast gathered around a flame in a brazier. As the brazier is raised to the flies, a furious party ensues with disco music. In Scene 1 in July 1981 we see Craig Donner (Elander Moore) terrified at his diagnosis. Craig Donner is barely out of his teens and he is frightened and shaking with emotion. An older man David (Richard Cant) has dark lesions on his face.
Brookner is trying to find out who the gay leaders are and get them to raise awareness and campaign for more testing, research and activism. Ned Weeks will become an activist and become well known for his prickly persistence when faced with those unwilling to help. His first call is to the New York Times where Felix Turner (Dino Fetscher) is an arts editor and a closet gay man. Ned campaigns to raise support from his brother Ben Weeks (Robert Bowman) a high powered board member of a powerful firm of New York attorneys.
Felix Turner talks about Jewish newspaper owners not reporting on Hitler as if that would make fascism go away. Parallels are drawn with gay men acknowledging what they all fear is developing. Happening simultaneously to his campaign Ned Weeks finds a love story with the journalist from the Times Felix Turner in scenes of poignancy and moments of happiness. As Ned campaigns to get the New York Mayor’s Office under Democrat Ed Koch to get financial support for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, he urges the gay community to get angry at the lack of action.
The cast are mostly on stage so there is no pausing for scene changes and Vicky Mortimer’s set is utilitarian.
The ensemble cast create the men who are the pioneers of a movement but the acting honours belong to Ben Daniels who is not afraid to show the aggressive side of Ned Weeks’s activism and whose actions are passionate and tremendously moving. Danny Lee Winter has most of the humour as Southerner Tommy Boatwright. Dino Fetscher as Felix Turner is the perfect, tender foil for Ned Weeks from their hilarious first date to a over hasty marriage. Liz Carr almost steals the show with a long speech aimed at the struggles of the medical profession. Dominic Cooke’s surefooted direction ensures sincerity and emotional depth.
The Normal Heart
Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Danny Lee Wynter
Jonathan Dryden Taylor
Director: Dominic Cooke
Set Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Costume Designer: Lisa Duncan
Movement: Liz Ranken
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Designer: Carolyn Dowling
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an interval
Booking to 6th November 2021
London SE1 9PX
Tube/Rail : Waterloo
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
Olivier Theatre on 30th September 2021