THE NORMAL HEART Olivier, SE1

THE LAST GREAT PLAGUE

       If you lived as an adult alongside the onset of AIDS forty years ago you don’t forget it: the lost friends and workmates , the rumours of ignorance which had the macabre horror of undertakers refusing corpses and (on our rural patch) the frightened small absurdities of people boycotting a local deli because the manager looked a bit camp and they might catch it off the salami.   We remember how remarkable it was when Diana and Liz Taylor strode in and held the hands of sufferers, and the particular terror of the way a diagnosis was understood to be terminal before antiretroviral drugs: one dark skin sarcoma spelling a death warrant.  We remember not only the vast shock and sorrow of  so many young men struck down, but  the homophobia:  the voices saying that homosexual acts were being punished by God or fate because its initial spread was in that free-living, newly self-conscious and celebratedly open gay culture.    

       Lately we have had it remembered in Angels in America , in the rather overpraised epic The Inheritance,  in revivals of My Night With Reg and the TV  portrait of London’s dismay and tragedy in It’s A Sin.  But this – Larry Kramer’s semi -autobiographical account of the foundation in his living room in New York of the Gay Men’s Health Centre – GMHC –  was the first of the AIDS plays. And it remains the most intelligent, moving and sometimes even humanely funniest of them all . The Olivier, sparsely set in the round and packed to the rafters, gives it everything it deserves:  nearly three hours fly by, considerably more gripping than the Bond movie with which I had  whiled away the afternoon. It raises echoes today: about the necessity and limitation of identity politics, about different approaches to activism, and simply about love.

     Ironically delayed by our newer pandemic , Dominic Cooke’s production expresses the strange and terrifying time through the eyes of Ned, the Kramer figure.  He is played with furious skinny vigour and explosive passion by Ben Daniels: every line of his body eloquent either in defiance (often of his own confreres),  or in the brief happy discovery of domestic love with Felix,  or in despair and grief. But around him every other figure has its private and distinct energy, flaring in turn, perfectly in tune and each illustrating the others.   Liz Carr as Dr Emma Brookner, herself a polio survivor,  is a tiny dynamo,  practically kindly and frustratedly enraged both by the horror of the degradings and dyings and by the speed of the spread being aggravated by the bathhouse culture.  “Tell gay men to stop having sex!” she pleads baldly from the start.  Ned protests that for them casual sex was a means of  connection, which becomes addiction, which becomes peer-pressure.   Though he himself, never yet in love as the play starts, comes to   deplore  the idea that “promiscuity is our political agenda” .  As a writer and reader, in passionate late outbursts he pleads for gay men to claim a proud cultural tradition from Plato to E.M.Forster and Alan Turing, and not constantly want to “be defined by our cocks”.    The complexity and torment of his nature is marvellously evoked in a great date scene, funny and touching and recognizable to anyone of any orientation whatsoever.  Felix (another wonderful performance by Dino Fetscher) speaks for relationships, and says Ned’s “making love” phrase is wrong because “we treat each other like whores”. Ned bridles nervously, rants politically, hears himself doing it, recovers…

         That clash about promiscuity is one of the many political and ideological questions deftly handled by Kramer through character.  The men’s meetings, either together in flat or phone-crazy office or in attempts to get Mayoral attention,  as Tommy Boatwright drily puts it,  suffer badly from “bereavement overload and a lot of styles which don’t quite mesh”.  Kramer himself, like Ned in the play, was edged out of his own movement because of his intemperate style.   Danny Lee Wynter’s Tommy (“I’m a Southern bitch!”) is  both wonderfully funny,  the campest of them all but also the most grounded,   deeply touching in his dogged loyalty to the project , and tenderness towards the vulnerable, exhausted Mickey (Daniel Monks) who  spends his days working at the health department writing advice about breastfeeding and herpes .  and his evenings doing newsletters about this far greater mortal danger which the public authorities  refuse to acknowledge or provide for.  Meanwhile, still in the closet yet chairman of the infant charity, Luke Norris is Bruce:   beautifully  balancing his bankerly, besuited dignity against the scruffy furiosity of Ned,  but relating his own lover’s undignified last moments in one of the play’s most wrenching speeches.     Ned’s straight elder brother Ben is Robert Bowman: and there’s another of the key, understated relationships of love and conflict which make the pattern of the play so deftly,  timelessly perfect.  And in this production, brilliantly displayed. 

Box office. Nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 6. Nov

Rating. FIVE.    

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