There was a time, exactly 40 years ago, that a pandemic started and almost no one noticed, and cared.
‘The Normal Heart’ is late activist and writer Larry Kramer’s first and most hard hitting and true story about the AIDS crises in its infancy. It showcases the desperation, the urgency , the mysterious disease that was striking down mostly gay men, and the extreme sorrow and loss that so many of these men (mostly young) went through, up until. The play is right in your face, and tells it like it is, and is an excellent production.
The opening scene is magnetic – gay men dancing, mostly with their shirts off, to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love.’ Then reality sets in.
Ben Daniels is absolutely superb in the role of Ben Weeks (a character based on Kramer himself) who is seeing friends getting sick and dying all around him. It is July 1981 and the illness, yet to have a name or an origin, causes men to have illnesses rarely ever seen before. And doctors are baffled, especially Dr. Emma Brookner (an excellent Liz Carr), who is treating several of Week’s friends, including the young Craig (Elander Donner). Weeks can’t take it anymore – he’s angry that the government isnt doing anything about the illness, he’s angry that his friends are getting sick snd dying, and he’s angry because homophobic (or gay) NYC Mayor Ed Koch won’t take a meeting with him.
Along with his friends they start a hotline for people to call with questions about the illness, and it takes off and gets too big then becomes an organization called Gay Men’s Health Crises. But as Weeks slowly falls in love with fashion writer Felix Turner (Dino Fetscher), he gets frustrated with the system and his friends get frustrated at him, and it’s more reality for Weeks as Turner finds out he has the illness. But there’s no denying that there is a crises, and it wasn’t until 1985, when this play actually premiered, when Rock Hudson died, and was also the year in which U.S. President Ronald Reagan finally mentioned the word AIDS (the term we now know). By that year there were 7,500 deaths from the disease. By 1990 there were 320,000 dead globally, and by the time cocktail combination therapy began (1996), annual global deaths were over 1 million.
‘The Normal Heart,’ staged in the round, appropriately with an eternal candle above the set to never forget those who have died of AIDS, is superbly directed by Dominic Cooke, but it’s the cast that takes this show to another level, and with Ben Daniels front and centred. He is just simply magnificent and superb. Give Daniels the Olivier now.
‘The Normal Heart is now playing at the National Theatre until November 6th only. Tickets here: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk