‘Men don’t just naturally not love – they learn that too’
Every now and then, a piece of theatre will come along that will emotionally hit you like a slap to the face, with the sensation lingering long after.
Larry Kramer’s Tony Award winning, The Normal Heart is one such play.
Kramer himself founded the first AIDS organisations, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis [GMHC] in 1981 followed by ACT UP in 1987, and became known for his passionate and provocative style of advocacy. His real-life experiences were dramatized in The Normal Heart, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1985 to critical acclaim and an explosion of controversy for the way in which it depicted the New York mayor and other notable real figures.
Largely autobiographical, The Normal Heart focuses on the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City between 1981 and 1984, as seen through the eyes of writer/activist Alexander ‘Ned’ Weeks, along with his friends and frenemies.
Prolific and multi award winning director Dean Bryant’s resolution of this work is probing and penetrating, and it is evident this story has been close to him for several years. Under his guidance and expertise on verbatim pieces, this production is manifold, meaningful, and momentous.
Designer Jeremy Allen and Lighting Designer really understood the assignment – from the opening chuff of 80s nostalgia, to the multidimensional set [changed seamlessly by the actors] and the inclusion of live piano and cello [stunning work by Clara Gillam-Grant] playing new compositions and arrangements of classics from the era.
The entire cast are brilliant, including Anthony Nicola as the enthusiastic, self-proclaimed ‘Southern bitch’ Tommy, Mark Saturno as Ned’s older, shameful lawyer brother Ben and the talented Michael Griffiths who played multiple roles as well as the piano.
Matt Hyde’s Bruce Niles, the cautious, polite, deferential, and closeted president of the organisation is convincing, and his description of his boyfriends last hours displayed his fragility and vulnerability.
Evan Lever took the character of free love advocate Mickey Marcus onto the stage with a controlled anguish culminating in his own breakdown.
These actors, when they weren’t in the scene, would stand or sit along the walls of the set and watch from the shadows, just as intently as the audience members.
The incredible Emma Jones plays the strong, angry and relentless Dr Emma Brookner, modelled after Dr Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what later became known as AIDS. Her explosive and gut wrenching monologue to the board will stay with you long after the curtain falls.
Ainsley Melham [better known to audiences in musicals such as Aladdin and Cinderella] shows us his intoxicating and powerful theatre side as Felix Turner, Ned’s New York Times writer lover. He embodies this compelling role first with the confidence required of the character then the exhausted and enervated as the illness takes hold. Tender moments between the lovers are beautifully rendered – romantic and heartbreaking and the chemistry between Felix and Ned is palpable.
Melham is exquisite.
But it is Mitchell Butell, as the obnoxious, argumentative but often right Ned Weeks that steers every scene with his virtuous desperation and intense authenticity. He demands and commands the stage and continues Kramer’s legacy to reflect on a troubling time of crisis, an ongoing public health battle and a cultural, historic event.
This work was written to grab attention, spread information and incite sympathy and understanding of the plight of a marginalised community. This production did just that. One not to be missed!