Creating socio-political change and even recognition doesn’t just happen, somewhere, sometime, someone has to fight for it, and history is full of organisations who since the end of absolute monarchies (and arguably even before) have tried to make their voices heard. Activists, anarchists, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, radicals, call them what you will, ultimately they all face the same question – do you use peaceable means to lull the government into meetings and reasonably state your case, or incite protest and even violence to force the issue? Larry Kramer’s powerful play The Normal Heart, which celebrates its 35-year anniversary with a National Theatre revival, explores this issue as a group of New Yorkers in the early 80s try to draw attention to a deadly virus stalking the gay community.
With press night later this week, expect to hear plenty of references to Angels in America, It’s a Sin and The Inheritance as recent stage and screen representations of the same era, as well as obvious allusions to our experience of the last 18-months. And while The Normal Heart indeed has much in common with these approaches in its character-driven structure on an epic scale, Kramer’s exploration of the nuances, barriers and conflicts within the community set this play apart, looking as much at the political organisation of awareness campaigns and pressure groups as the stories of the men disagreeing about how they should fight for their lives.
From the Luddites to the Suffragettes, the Diggers to the Chartists, organisations demanding change have always found themselves divided on the issue of whether the end justifies the means. The Chartists in particularly were hugely conflicted between William Lovett’s peaceable and domestic aims for social reform which included Sunday schools and educational improvement of the working classes, and those of fellow-leader Fergus O’Connor whose more explosive approach pushed physical force as a means of ratifying the People’s Charter. And here, in The Normal Heart, Kramer expands on a similar division between the hot-headed Alexander ‘Ned’ Weeks and the closeted Bruce Niles who become co-leaders of a single organisation that pulls in two contentious directions.
The story runs chronologically from 1981-1984 during a period when political and medical groups refused to acknowledge the presence of an epidemic moving through a community they equally pretended did not exist. But the virus itself had yet to be properly identified and the consequences of this are the context for Kramer’s play, focusing on a period of considerable uncertainty as cases were doubling rapidly in New York and the first deaths occurred. As authority figures remained unmoved, refusing even to fund pioneering medical experiments, how to break through that wall of silence is the play’s dramatic driver. The formation of an advocacy and support group for the community becomes increasingly bureaucratic, and Kramer astutely balances their growing frustration with government process and the unpreparedness of its members for the scale of the fight as the disease takes hold, intricately combining the personal and the political.
The distinction Kramer draws between radical and peaceable protest is managed through the subtly changing nature of the organisation that Ned and Bruce start together. What was – to paraphrase one of Ned’s impassioned speeches – a start-up in his living room becomes a formal, almost corporate-style entity with the introduction first of a President-figure as the acceptable public face of a charitable concern, and later a Board who manage operations and personnel. As the game and its scale changes, the balance between activism and lobbying makes miniscule shifts throughout the play; where once the group distributed newsletters, Kramer raises the stakes, so as more men are infected, their organisation is simultaneously required to adapt its behaviour and tactics for a bigger audience, becoming increasingly embroiled in government petitions and appeals.
What this means for the characters is equally defining and while O’Connor’s belief in physical force created a temporary swell for the Chartists, Ned’s outspokenness is seen to be detrimental to himself and his movement. Kramer manages this with care; Ned is the anchor of the play, an isolated figure in many ways who espouses some extreme views on abstinence that ruffle feathers, but Kramer never judges his lead and, in fact, Ned’s claims are never shown to be wrong – in fact much of what he says proves in time to be correct – only his refusal to play by the rules and allow others to bury their heads in the sand, mark him out as an agitator who knows the only way to achieve his aim quickly is to forego the social niceties and create a public disturbance.
Bruce, by contrast, is the role model leader, a man concealing his sexuality to maintain a lifestyle. With a well-paid job at a leading bank, a reputation to protect and plenty of business contacts, Bruce is an inside man, someone who knows how to charm the mayor’s office or a journalist into taking a meeting where he can gently apply the right kind of pressure to advance their cause. While Ned questions Bruce’s bravery and desire for privacy, the context Kramer creates for him in that particular professional world in the early 1980s makes sense of Bruce as a character and his desire to use the proper channels.
And this contrast leads to considerable nuance in the presentation of the community, drawing out strands of disagreement and discontent not often seen in equivalent works. Far from one homogenous group, Kramer looks deeply at what is a fractured and confused community of men, some believing that waiting and watching is the best course of action while cases are low and undefined, while others like Ned know this is the start of something bigger. Kramer here is looking at the process of hindsight, noting that it is easy to look back and think more should have been done sooner, but the variety of responses he presents in The Normal Heart consider how little concrete information was really available during those years and how difficult it was to pitch a suitable response.
Kramer’s play also considers this a crisis point in the external presentation of gay lifestyles with the fear that promiscuity was creating a negative and limited perspective on sexuality as primarily a physical act. Despite his more active approach, Ned is the one who wants to expand the impression of same-sex relationships, making another impassioned speech about the contributions of writers, scientists and creatives who he feels connected to and wanting to continue the growth of a cultural identity that extends beyond sex. By contrast, the character of Mickey Marcus in particular feels tainted by what he sees as Ned’s judgemental stance and in an important middle section talks about having fought for the right to be open and free, and struggles with now being labelled a ‘murderer’ and shamed for it.
In Dominic Cooke’s new production in-the-round on the Olivier stage, all of these themes are given the space to emerge and overlap during the show’s near three hour running time. There are lots of knotty debates and interlocking strands, but there is clarity in how these very different ideas are shaped within the play as Kramer treats the broad ranges of opinion and belief espoused by his characters with compassion. They may be united by a social scene but they have very different backgrounds and attitudes, amplified by the exposing nature of the playing space.
As a director Cooke, whose earlier success in this auditorium includes the incomparable Follies, has a feel for the emotional currents within a play and the different illusions that characters have about themselves and their situations, especially at the moment these are shattered or re-routed. Cooke finds those beats in The Normal Heart, creating a minimal visual impression in order to fill the space with character arcs, social shifts and the emotional impact of a story that successfully balances the complicated process of dissidence and protest with the often devastating everyday impact on the lives of the men trying to fighting these bigger battles on all fronts.
Designed by Vicki Mortimer (who also worked with Cooke on Follies), the simple marbled floor and benches have a dual purpose, simultaneously representing the foyer of grand buildings like City Hall, where Ned and Bruce must fight for recognition, and the conventional business-like locations that symbolise Bruce’s background and the governance structure that evolves within the advocacy group. There is a coldness and formality in Mortimer’s design that underscores the character’s struggles for official support, but there is also a subtle tomb-like feel to the staging that acts as a memorial to the countless men referenced yet never seen who die in the course of the play, enhanced further by the continuous flame that burns above the action throughout.
Delayed by the pandemic, Ben Daniels has swapped a previously announced part in the upcoming Manor for the role of Ned in The Normal Heart and it is a worthy exchange. Daniels’s Ned has a true and unyielding conviction, a man of extreme emotional states who believes in his causes as ardently as he eventually comes to love Felix. That slow opening up is something Daniels presents extremely well, and while never disconnected from the suffering of his friends, his relationship gives him a different perspective on the urgency of official support and acknowledgement. Daniels’s Ned can be harsh, even cruel in his desire to shake others out of their complacency while his fervency is sometimes misguided, but appearing in almost every scene Daniels fills the room with Ned’s burning zeal, while delivering his very fine speeches with sensitivity.
Luke Norris is equally skilful as Bruce navigating a complex position between two very different societies. Although there is very limited time to see his more emotional side, Norris creates plenty of empathy for Bruce, struggling to balance his public life with what he believes is the right and only direction for the advocacy group. His frustrations with Ned conceal an admiration for him, and there are some explosive and tender moments between the men that Norris weaves into a very meaningful performance.
Daniel Monks is superb as ever in the role of Mickey diligently supporting the administration of the organisation while feeling increasingly burdened by the polarisation of opinion. Danny Lee Wynter adds flair as the Southern Tommy Boatwright able to lighten the mood with a sharp riposte while Liz Carr brings a crusading spirit and authority to the role of Dr Emma Brookner. Robert Bowman also adds plenty of depth as Ned’s brother Ben who represents a more traditional standpoint but tries to understand this alternative perspective.
As with any in-the-round production, the blocking here tends to favour the traditional auditorium so those in the onstage seating won’t see the actor’s faces during many of the big speeches, but it barely detracts from the impact of this incredible play. Looking at the process of recognition and political activism during a period where almost no information was available, The Normal Heart offers a different perspective on these early days of HIV and, like the scores of political groups before them, leaves the audience wondering whether violent or orderly protest is the best way to be heard.