The Normal Heart review: timely and essential revival of Larry Kramer’s Aids drama

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Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart  (Helen Maybanks)
Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart (Helen Maybanks)

A play about the Aids epidemic might seem de trop in the middle of a pandemic, but Larry Kramer’s autobiographical 1985 drama is a glorious, wrenching watch. It charts the four-year struggle of Jewish writer Ned Weeks (furious, charismatic Ben Daniels) to force both the gay community and the government to acknowledge the virus suddenly ripping through New York’s bathhouses and bachelor apartments. It’s a talky play from an era when things weren’t talked about, with a rock-solid emotional core and a leavening seam of dark humour. It’s terribly, terribly moving.

In the first scene, Ned and other men in the office of Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr, on devastatingly acid form) discuss a new, deadly mystery ailment. “I’m her 28th case,” says one, “and 14 of them are dead.” From there, the toll of deaths and infections climbs. Sound familiar? Director Dominic Cooke doesn’t labour the contemporary parallels, but they’re all there, particularly the level of denial.

Ned starts an advocacy group to stop his hedonistic peers having sex and make politicians, medics and the media notice them. He insults mayor Ed Koch, compares Aids to the Holocaust, and decries the New York Times for devoting more space to seven Tylenol-related deaths than to a plague laying waste to the gay community. Such combative attitudes alienate both his more hedonistic and more closeted colleagues, especially the campaign’s strait-laced frontman, Green Beret turned banker Bruce (Luke Norris). Essentially, Ned’s accused of promoting Project Fear.

Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris (Helen Maybanks)
Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris (Helen Maybanks)

Kramer, who was also a screenwriter and novelist, died in May 2020, shortly after this revival was delayed by lockdown. I love the story of him passing out fliers at the 2011 New York production explaining who the characters were based on. He undoubtedly aggrandised his own activism in “fighter” Ned, but he also shows him to be a bully and an asshole.

Ned’s exasperated friends are given comparable depth and space, and there’s a scene-stealing turn from Danny Lee Wynter as sauntering, compassionate southern peacemaker Tommy Boatwright. Dr Brookner, a polio survivor, is the only female character, but she’s a doozy. Ned’s relationships with his lover Felix (Dino Fetscher) and brother Ben (Robert Bowman) are nuanced and complex. Ripped torsos are periodically bared, but so are souls.

Liz Carr and Ben Daniels (Helen Maybanks)
Liz Carr and Ben Daniels (Helen Maybanks)

Designer Vicki Mortimer’s set features a permanently flickering flame raised aloft, and twin neon rings around and above an almost-bare circular stage: a sign of unity in a story full of strife. The show is a team effort, but one built around Daniels’ star turn. He’s magnificent, by turns cocksure, wrathful, tongue-tied on his first date with Felix, and wracked with survivor’s guilt. This is a timely and essential revival.

National Theatre, to 6 Nov; nationaltheatre.org.uk

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