National Theatre, London – until 6 November 2021
The Normal Heart is a play of fights. Set in the early 1980s in New York, gay men are dying, but gay activist Ned Weeks (Ben Daniels) is struggling to get anyone to do anything. Only Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr), who is trying to treat the increasing numbers of sick men, shares his concern and sense of urgency.
While Ned and Dr Brookner agree something needs to be done, they don’t see eye to eye on what and how. As the death toll rises in New York and beyond, Ned gathers a growing group of volunteers to raise awareness among the gay community and campaign to get funding and support from the authorities.
Ned’s approach is to be direct, to shout and stamp, but others prefer a softer, more diplomatic tone; there is more at stake than losing lovers and friends. This isn’t just a fight for life, it’s a fight to smash stereotypes. It’s a fight for the recognition of a community and the right to be out and proud – or not – without prejudice.
Performed in the round, the stage is sparse, with just a handful of stone benches dotted around the stage, focusing attention on the performances. The tension builds slowly, from the personal to the political. And that’s what makes it such a rich and thought-provoking piece. The spectre of AIDS, an invisible threat, unites and fractures; it exposes conflicting dreams and aspirations and a multitude of fears and loves.
Ben Daniels‘ is a force throughout, giving a performance that ranges from raw anger and frustration to tender and utterly heart-wrenching. But equally, The Normal Heart is a sublime ensemble piece which is its real power; each is a rounded character adding different lenses to the arguments. The production was postponed due to COVID, but watching it now, I’m sure it changed how I experienced the story.
Sitting wearing a mask 18 months into a pandemic made it easier to understand the fight to get people to recognise the seriousness of the situation and the politics involved. It is a little slow to start with, but it is a gripping and affecting piece of theatre once it finds its stride. I’m giving The Normal Heart four and a half stars.
It’s 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an interval and is on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage until 6 November. Find out more details and buy tickets here on the National Theatre website.
Some other plays, currently playing, that I’ve reviewed:
Is God Is, Royal Court Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Memory of Water, Hampstead Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Camp Siegfried, Old Vic ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half
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