THE NORMAL HEART
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Dominic Cooke
National Theatre/Olivier – until 6 November 2021
One of the seminal plays of the AIDS generation, Larry Kramer’s 1985 text is a howl of outrage written in blood, fury, grief and bewilderment, epic in scope but intimate in detail. Subsequent plays, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels In America or Mathew Lopez’s The Inheritance, cover similar terrain with more finesse: the early to mid 1980s when a baffling, devastating disease ripped through the gay community laying waste to countless young lives, dreams, relationships and expectations. However, Kramer’s play is a different beast, pitched halfway between drama and reportage, and the immediacy and authenticity of it’s vision retains the ability to knock the breath out of the viewer, screaming at us down the years like a newspaper headline.
I’m not sure though how clear that would be though if your only exposure to The Normal Heart is Dominic Cooke’s underwhelming new version. It starts with a striking visual image, which recalls Declan Donnellan’s original Angels In America that played just around the corner in what used to be the Cottesloe, with the entire company watching a flame of remembrance being lit then borne aloft into the Olivier flies before the stage erupts into a raucous 80s gay club vibrating to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.
From then on though, theatrical excitement is in rather short supply. For starters the venue is all wrong: even in the round the National’s Olivier stage feels huge (the original productions played at the Public in NYC and the Royal Court in London, both of which are comparatively tiny, and the searingly brilliant 2011 all-star revival played at the second smallest house on Broadway) and serves here to make an already declamatory script feel more and more like a series of bellowed set pieces and shouting matches, with several vital moments rendered invisible to large sections of the house due to the in-the-round set-up.
The sheer size of the house makes emotional connection harder to achieve, a problem exacerbated further by a couple of lacklustre performances, some dodgy accents and an uncertainty of focus. The lack of human engagement needn’t necessarily be an issue in a play so fierily political as this one, cataloguing the monumental failures of the US presidential administration, NYC Mayor Ed Koch and the New York Times to acknowledge the health disaster unfolding, but it does run the risk of making the script seem like a series of dry list recitals rather than real drama. Cooke’s chilly staging, neither brutal nor funny enough, definitely errs in that direction, keeping the audience at a further remove by having the scene breaks and locations announced by the actors in their native Brit accents. It should come at us with the urgency of a high speed train that gets stopped dead in it’s tracks when the unfolding tragedy gets personal, but, at least on the night I saw it, it felt like an under energised meander.
There are some powerful moments though, mostly down to Ben Daniels, genuinely magnificent in the central role of Ned Weeks (who basically IS Larry Kramer by another name). Daniels masterfully charts the man’s journey from defensive wit through bewilderment then bone-rattling fury at the plight of his gay brethren and the apparent general apathy to it, before utter, debilitating grief as he loses his beloved (Dino Fetscher, whose performance grows in stature as his character tragically disintegrates) to the dreaded epidemic.
Daniel Monks and Luke Norris do truthful, passionate work as a pair of contrasting men engaging in the fight against AIDS and the broken status quo. The only woman in the cast, Liz Carr, is a glorious force of nature in real life but seldom finds the fire and dynamism in the irascible, outspoken doctor (Ellen Barkin on Broadway all but set the house ablaze in her precious few minutes of stage time), and is disappointingly flat.
This remains a landmark play but it doesn’t suit the Olivier. What should knock us sideways feels, for the most part, timid and worthy. In the wake of the pandemic and the onscreen triumph of It’s A Sin, this could have felt like a major cultural event for 2021. It’s frustratingly lacking in catharsis and rage.