Disco lights dance across the writhing male bodies as they twist and turn to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, but when the lights go out the men are in Dr Emma Brookner’s office wondering why their hedonistic friends are getting ill and dying. So opens The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, writes Michael Holland.
A simple circular stage becomes early 80s New York where no one can work out what is killing young, gay men. Brookner, brilliantly played by Liz Carr, is doing research with her patients, logging all the signs and symptoms and trying different treatments. She also logs their lifestyle.
With no conclusive evidence her advice is for them to stop having sex until the cause is confirmed, which is definitely not an option for the majority: ‘We fought for this,’ says one, ‘so I’m not stopping.’
The death toll rises but the media still won’t make it a story. Ned Weeks, who believes the doctor, attempts to stir the gay community and the authorities into action, but they are not interested. He tries to fundraise for more research, but the money merely trickles in. He establishes a group of gay men who want to stop people dying but at that time far too many gay men remained in the closet, scared to emerge for fear of losing their jobs, their friends, and their family.
Ned’s anger leads him to publicly abusing the Mayor, harassing journalists, and hectoring the media to take up the epidemic story. In California, the Governor gives millions to research, but in New York, government contributions can be counted in the low thousands. Potential funders are saying ‘gays have a bad image with all the chains and leather and dresses…’, but Ned can’t find anyone else to be the group’s spokesperson, someone less temperamental.
The constant talk amongst the gay community is of who’s unwell and who’s died, and all the while the majority continue having sex. Ned’s anger rises.
Eventually, the group feels Ned’s activism is detrimental to the cause and excludes him from the mission that he began. He loses friends and family and struggles in relationships as he continues the fight, and after some time the message gets through; there are more volunteers to help the cause and more exposure worldwide, but still the virus spreads. The New York Times writes about it, but still too many gays are scared to come out. Civil disobedience erupts, but a cure is said to be years away.
Dr Brookner gives a magnificent anti-government speech about the lack of funding that had the whole theatre clapping, but it was Ben Daniel’s monumental performance as Ned Weeks that stood out. His speech imploring the gay community to have pride and to claim their gay rights was tremendous.
This revival of The Normal Heart is timely because we can look back and see the similarities of the fear and the ignorance that we see with Covid. There was a glut of conspiracy theories then as there are now, which aid the spreading by deterring people getting the help.
Larry Kramer was an angry activist who was banned from the group he started in his front room. Kramer did upset the very people who could fund the work, The Normal Heart is his way of saying all that he didn’t get to say and through Ned Weeks he was honest enough to portray himself as not a nice person.
The play is overlong and wordy, but it is worthy. At the end several people around me were quietly sobbing.
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank SE1 until November 6th. Times: Tues – Sat 7.15pm, Thus & Sat matinees 1.15pm. Admission: £20 – £89.
Photos: Helen Maybanks