The Normal Heart – National Theatre Olivier

A sparse but strong revival of Larry Kramer’s influential play is a curiously programmed pandemic drama that documents and commemorates

Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart

Many plays based in facts set themselves up as attempts at finding or renegotiating justice. Such plays generally contain elements of journalistically composed evidence, an indictment of the culpable, and an attempt at memorialising real victims.

These plays take many different forms and concentrate of varying scales of injustice. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 positions itself as an act of restorative feminist justice, re-examining the discovery of the DNA double-helix and placing scientist Rosalind Franklin at the heart of a previously male-dominated narrative. Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison is a factual drama (albeit with delightful Vaudevillian diversions) about the murder (indeed, assassination) of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. The play offers itself as a self-consciously poor substitute for the indictment of Russia in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko that the UK government has refused to issue. Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland – playing a short script-in-hand run at the Royal Court Upstairs at the moment – fuses semi-journalistic representations of (fictionalised, though very real) police failures in dealing with (and creating) violence against women with a howl of anger.

Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart – first staged in New York in 1985 and now revived in the UK for the first time since 1986 at the National’s Olivier theatre, attempts something similar – however the play itself and this new production appear to have subtly different aims.

The play and its landmark productions are almost model cases for theatre as both journalism and memorial. The 2011 revival notably ended with a list of names projected onto the walls around the stage, echoing the original 1985 run – during which the names of the dead were written around the theatre, the audience invited to contribute more if they had them each night. The play became a living record. As Emily Garside wrote last year in The Queer Review (shortly after his death), Kramer fused ‘art and activism’. The names were documentary, an interactive memorial, and a political declaration.

Perhaps unwilling to copy the simple but devastatingly effective design choices of previous versions (and hamstrung by the Olivier’s current in-the-round layout for which this production is poorly suited), Dominic Cooke instead begins with silence. The entire cast stand on stage, whilst a flame is light. This fire burns above the stage throughout the performance, recalling the eternal flames of war memorials. It sets an appropriately sombre tone, though lacks the double intentions of the list of names – an unspecific ritual remembrance rather than a document of the crisis.

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart

Robert Lepage and theatre company Ex Machina’s epic production The Seven Streams of the River Ota (originally staged in 1994 and refined ever since), which played in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre in early 2020 grappled with its roles documenting and remembering the Hiroshima bombing. One of its biggest problems was its focus on victims from an outsider’s perspective. It opens with an American soldier ‘discovering’ the injuries of a Hibakusha (a survivor of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945), and this act of peering in persists across its seven hours.

One of the play’s best ‘streams’ (the play is constructed from seven interwoven sections) foregrounds an American man, living with AIDS in the 1980s, choosing euthanasia as a quicker, more painless death. A few pages of text last almost an hour on stage, the silence leaving space for memorial. His individual death stands for many, and the audience are given time to cry. The events are not filtered through another set of western eyes.

In the penultimate stream, set on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Lepage (surely deliberately) holds a minute of silence. On the face of it, this might be Lepage finally memorialising the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, yet the silence is held for perfunctory reasons: an interview’s film crew need some room tone for their audio recording. It is perhaps a grimly ironic enaction the western world’s failure to consider the scale of destruction and harm caused in dropping of atomic bombs. But even this sympathetic reading doesn’t quite work. Even if this moment is both memorial and critique at once, the play is relatively toothless without proper restitution. Lepage and his company produced something documentary, even at times memorialising, but which failed to apportion blame, culpability or morality to the atomic bombing in whose wake its stories unfold.

A similar problem afflicts The Normal Heart – less problematic in its first performances, during which its purpose was rather different, but concerning now. The play is not completely without critique; newspaper owners are blamed for their silence, Kramer exposes the ostracising doctors could suffer for speaking out, and Reagan hardly gets off lightly. Yet the play largely assumes the awfulness of those with political power rather than unpicking it, instead surveying the internal dynamics of a community divided in fear. The suffering is heartrendingly visceral, but the characterisation feels somewhat thin – though there are terrific turns from Ben Daniels, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter in particular. The play lionises its lead’s singular fight for gay men to take individual responsibility for their actions, and essentially give up having sex. The result is a dialectical struggle between protagonist Ned Weeks’ anti-sex rationalism and the gay liberationist perspective, which locates gay sex itself as a site of political struggle. Thus, the very act is a form of praxis. At other points, the oppositional conflict is between Ned the vocal campaigner and the public silence of the closeted. Yet this feels like it lets the wrong people off the hook. The source of the shame never quite enters the frame. Ned’s individualistic campaigning feels a little misdirected and even ill-timed amid another pandemic in which individual responsibility has been used to divert criticism from government inaction.

Perhaps what feels most unfortunate about this production is the timing. Though originally scheduled to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the play, the Coronavirus pandemic delayed its appearance and gave it a grimly ironic parallel. However, it also makes the production feel like a sometimes-odd attempt at meta-journalism. There are points where the comparison feels somewhat apposite, and others where it just doesn’t work at all. Arifa Akbar rightly notes one of the major differences in The Guardian. Ned Weeks says that ‘We are living an epidemic while the rest of the world is going on around us. We are living a war while they are living in peace-time.’

Yet parts of the play feel frustratingly generalised. What appears to have been so effective in the original production is blunted here. The list of names was both memorial and journalism, whilst Kramer clearly is asking the audience to listen and to help him seek justice. Replacing the list of names with a flame is just one way the play has become less specific. If one so wished, the flame could be read as a more sweeping remembrance for the casualties of Coronavirus, or more cynically as an empty expression of LGBTQ solidarity without any commitment to present-day advocacy or struggle.

Ultimately, as the problems of Seven Streams remind us, an act of memorial must know who it is designed for – both living and dead. Dominic Cooke’s production does present the raw horror of the AIDS crisis. The reveal of a dark lesion upon a character’s body generates a sudden, seismic shift in tone here just as a similar moment does in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. That such a scene remains shocking rather than a formal cliché is a testament to the lack of such stories in the intervening 36 years. However, this production seems sparse, unmoored from its time period, yet also curiously dated. Is this a play remembering the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic, a rallying cry against contemporary crises in the LGBTQ community (see Hailey Bachrach’s excellent piece in Exeunt), or an attempt to understand our current circumstances living with Coronavirus? Perhaps these are the wrong questions to be asking, but the uncertainty of this production’s purpose cannot help but prompt them.

The Normal Heart

Written by Larry Kramer, Directed by Dominic Cooke, Starring Ben Daniels, Robert Bowman, Richard Cant, Liz Carr, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Krikler, Daniel Monks, Elander Moore, Luke Norris, Henry Nott, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Samuel Thomas, Danny Lee Wynter
Reviewed 30th September 2021

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