This wasn’t a piece of theatre, this was a battle cry. Larry Kramer’s unapologetically angry “The Normal Heart”, about the New York AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, may have received its St Andrews debut 30 years after the fact, but this production ensured we knew the fight is far from over.
Praising its success is easy. It set out to make us mad, and it did. I challenge you to find a single audience member who did not leave this play thinking about stigma and prejudice against those with HIV/AIDS, and if this were simply a review of purpose I’d end here. Yet this is a consciously theatrical piece of activism, and it demands a little more than admitting I left simultaneously infuriated and emotionally exhausted.
The acting was, for the most part, strong enough to match the bitter fury of the script. Cara Mahoney palpably bristled during her monologue as Dr Brookner, a doctor trying to piece together this mysterious illness whilst all her peers do their best to ignore it. Will Qua as the stereotypically ‘camp’ Tommy brought a level of vulnerability that elevated his performance beyond the one-dimensionality to which it could have been reduced. And under the tangibly enraged exterior of the play beat a very human heart brought to life by Jared Liebmiller as the central character of Ned, a gay activist on a one-man mission to convince New York to stand up and do something. He was at once ambitiously fearless and heart-achingly naïve, an almost-hero with too much heart for the things he loves. Felix (Tom Giles), successful New York Times editor and the only man Ned’s ever fallen for, provided bittersweet relief – light and loving at the start, with an achingly wrenching honesty as he succumbs to the disease. The penultimate scene was where Giles really shone, acting with a quiet poignancy that proved this production was far from amateur.
Despite the prevailing talent of the cast, the second act became saturated with rage-filled outbursts, which left moments like Mickey’s (Chris Walker) emotional breakdown numb when they should have stood out. Similarly, Chase Lawrence Hopkins played Ben Weeks, Ned’s lawyer brother who prefers to offer a blind eye over a helping hand, with a slow arrogance that grated against the visceral energy of the rest of the play rather than aiding it. Directors Frazer Hadfield and Caroline Christie seemed to opt for intensity over realism, meaning Dr Brookner’s singular determination and Mickey’s do-gooder meekness felt repetitive and flat after a few scenes.
The sparse set of stark white walls and a single hospital bed morphing into various settings kept the play focussed on what people tried so hard to avoid: AIDS was everywhere, and soon enough it’ll take something from you too. Actors moved set in semi-darkness with a purposeful solemnity that reminded you this play had a mission, as piano music (composed by Frazer Hadfield) recalled the heart beneath it all. Even between scenes it wasn’t going to let us relax. The back wall was slowly covered with names as the play progressed, but while this should have been emotionally resonant the illegible font and askew framing irritated.
Nevertheless, mentioning faults like this, or less-than-convincing accents and the lesion makeup that was clearly makeup-y, feels futile. This was a political wake-up call first and foremost, and in that it more than succeeded. It wanted to shout, to scream, to force us to listen, and if at times it verged on aggressively impassioned and manipulative, it need make no apology. Wars are not started quietly, and this one reminds us we still very much need to fight.
Image courtesy of The Normal Heart Facebook page.