In the original off-Broadway production of The Normal Heart in New York City in 1985, the set was updated every night with new death and infection statistics, new headlines, new examples of coverage—or failures of coverage—of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. AIDS had only been known by that name for three years.
The current production of The Normal Heart at the National Theatre opens with a moment’s silence around a flame that is ignited by the company, and then burns above the stage for the rest of the play. There is no explanation—we don’t need one. We know all of this now.
So I found myself wondering what, exactly, this play is for in 2021.
Larry Kramer, who died in 2020, was a controversial figure, and his play is as blunt and polemical as the man himself was said to be—as evidenced by its leading character, a thinly veiled take on Kramer named Ned Weeks. But where does the energy of a polemic go when the crisis it seeks to stir up passion for no longer exists in the form it depicts?
Over half of the people worldwide living with AIDS today are women and girls. Men who have sex with other men remain a key at-risk population, but they’re now less vulnerable than sex workers, intravenous drug users, and trans women. These highly stigmatized groups, unsurprisingly, are under-resourced when it comes to combatting transmission and receiving treatment.
Funding and attention are the crisis that preoccupies Ned Weeks in the early days of the epidemic in New York City, when the first handful of his friends begin dying of a mystery illness. An extra bank of seating is added to transform the Olivier into a theatre in the round, and the static, blocky benches that make up the primary scenery (designed by Vicki Mortimer) mirror the concrete architecture of the theatre itself. The sense of metatheatricality this invites is echoed by the Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking prefaces to every scene, where the actors recite the scene number, date, and location to the audience in their own accents. But this is early evidence of the production’s sense of identity crisis, as the scenes themselves do not invite the kind of thoughtful distancing that these devices imply. Especially as the play goes on, they demand empathy and pathos, not cool critical thought.
Ned and his friends and frenemies found a group that Ned hopes will become an activist collective, agitating for attention and money from the government and society at large, while his allies quickly become more interested in providing support to the sick and trying to cooperate with local government. Ned follows the lead of Doctor Emma Brookner (Liz Carr) in insisting that gay men must save themselves by abstaining from casual sex, while his compatriots are hesitant to tell the gay community that they have to go back into the closet, sexually speaking. About the only thing they can agree on is that they need more money, more support, more resources. “Everyone is entitled to good medical care,” Ned insists.
Did you know that wait lists at NHS gender clinics are now years long? And getting the first appointment is just the first step in the slow process of medically transitioning. Understandably, many trans people turn to expensive private health care to meet their needs on a more realistic timeline. Studies have repeatedly found that rates of suicide and suicide attempts amongst trans people are markedly higher than in the population as a whole; some suggest over half of trans people have attempted suicide. However, a Canadian study from 2015 found that medical transition and simple processes for changing identification documents markedly reduced suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
Just today, it was announced that the anti-trans LGB Alliance will be present at the Conservative Party Conference next week. And I have to confess that in moments, I found it a little bit maddening to be watching a 36-year-old play about cis gay men in America when there is a crisis in the LGBT community here in Britain right now.
Director Dominic Cooke seems to have recognised this potential shortcoming a little bit, adding a single reference to Mickey (Daniel Monks) being disabled, and a wordless, implied reference to Tommy (Danny Lee Wynter) being Black. Since I’m feeling Weeks-y, I’ll say it: it’s a perfect example of the shortcomings of trying to introduce diversity through casting rather than just telling new stories. In a play so concerned with questions of identity, and characters who are so passionate about standing up for who they are, why on earth would Mickey and Tommy not talk about these identities more? The obvious intersections of disability and and a debilitating disease? The particular problems faced by the Black gay community at the time? It feels like a gesture of embarrassment, even though they offer two of the strongest performances.
The Normal Heart, at this point, is a historical play. It is an important and moving snapshot taken from a moment of crisis, but the mere fact that is was being told from within the catastrophe it depicts leads to moments that feel disingenuous without context. Emma and Ned are firmly depicted as being on the right side of history, which in many ways they were—but they also aren’t as uncomplicatedly correct as they seem at first glance, particularly when it comes to their aggressive abstinence-only stance. It’s a view that’s understandable for the time, but risks perpetuating inaccurate and damaging information about HIV and AIDS now.
Kramer wrote that he wanted Ned to be ‘obnoxious,’ but whether it’s down to Cooke’s directing, Ben Daniels’ charm, or simply time and acclimation to abrasive anti-heroes, he simply isn’t anymore. The sting has been taken out of the character. Beyond his relative correctness about questions of transmission, Ned’s cultural critiques are no longer challenging to your average theatregoing audience. His argument for a gay identity defined by everything but actual sexuality has basically won. The slogan is Love is Love, not Sex is Sex. Every year, people complain about how there’s too much sexuality on display at corporate-sponsored Pride parades. With hindsight, Ned comes off as a prophet, which makes the counterarguments of his opponents—already underwritten compared to Ned’s passion—seem even flimsier and more ridiculous than they originally might have.
That’s fine, I guess. But it leads me back to wondering what this play is supposed to do. It lacks the framing to make clear that it’s a historical artefact; it does not give a nuanced or even always accurate depiction of life with AIDS; it urges passion for a problem that no longer exists in that specific form. Despite moments of pathos, the production simply didn’t convince me that the play has retained its urgency.
It’s not that I think this story doesn’t matter on its own terms. But The Normal Heart was written to grab attention, to spread information, to incite sympathy and understanding that would lead to demands for change. If that’s the intention of this production—and I think that’s a very worthy political goal for the National Theatre’s largest stage—then it needs to tell the story of different, more current problems. And if it just wants to reflect on a troubling moment in American history, an ongoing public health problem and a cultural event that continues to mark the gay community, then maybe you need a play that’s actually trying to do that.
The Normal Heart is on at National Theatre until 6th November. More info and tickets here.