Long before it was an HBO film, The Normal Heart was an intensely political piece of theatre. It wanted to take its audience by the shoulders and shake them until they became politicised too. In spite of the slow changes in attitudes towards HIV and AIDS, the production team behind Mermaids’ next Byre venture remain acutely aware of the necessity for politics in the play. In fact, what is striking about this team is their desire for their production not only to entertain but to do something; to enact some sort of change or action in its audience.
In order to think about why the play should remain important, a potted history of the play is essential: in 1985 Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart as a response to the “gay cancer” that, whilst being ignored by both the popular media and governments, was killing thousands of people a year. The play is angry and uncompromising both in its depiction of the gay community and those who were fighting for public recognition of the disease. That’s all well and good but why should this play – written thirty years ago this year – be revived in St Andrews. As was to be expected, the production team – Frazer Hadfield, Caroline Christie (co-directors) and Katie Brennan (producer) – was keen to make clear not only that the play is remains relevant but also that its relevance has not diminished since its premiere. The entire production team is certainly qualified to take on this play: both Hadfield and Christie worked on the successful production of Angels in America which took both St Andrews and the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm and Hadfield wrote his dissertation on the relationship between theatre and AIDS. This is a production team who are clearly interested and passionate about the issues the play tackles.
Talking to the team it was easy to see the passion they have not only for theatre in St Andrews but most importantly for their production. The cast and crew have done significant research not only on the response to AIDS in the 1980s but also in 2015, and it is from this research that their passion for this play to culminate in action stems: AIDS, in spite of leaps in medical treatment, is not a solved and shelved issue, rather it continues to affect individuals on a day-to-day basis. The emphasis on action following the production is not a series of hollow words: the production team is working not only in collaboration with Saints LGBT but also with the Terrence Higgins Trust to provide a post-show talk about issues raised in the play and the issues that continue to affect the LGBT community.
Similarly, what the production team are keen to emphasis is that The Normal Heart is not simply a static piece of drama. The 2011 Broadway production of the play allowed for revisions to the script which made the input the lesbian community had on the early fight against AIDS to be included in the script. Taking this further, the production team behind the St Andrews production have changed the gender of one of the characters to ensure the lesbian community exist not – as some critics thought of the 1985 production – as a footnote to the action of male homosexuals, rather as a central part of the fight. Additionally the numerous revisions to the script over time have ensured that the play remains scientifically accurate and relevant in terms of discussion of treatment and symptoms. The Normal Heart, put quite simply, is not a play that exists merely within a theatrical vacuum. Its aim is to unashamedly document those on the frontline of the discovery and subsequent struggle against AIDS.
However, as a prospective audience member, what matters is whether the production is going to be any good or not. As the second play to fill the Byre since the acclaimed The Importance of Being Earnest, the team might be expected to have a few worries. It is Hadfield who puts it best: “there’s no reason that just because its student theatre we shouldn’t do it properly”. In these hands I reckon it will be done properly.
The Normal Heart runs at the Byre Theatre from the 10th – 12th February 2015. Tickets are available from www.byretheatre.com.