Tissues. The solution to any post-lockdown financial challenges the National Theatre may be going through right now. Little packs of tissues. The National TheaTears (or similar). Bosh on a logo and sell them with ice-creams. Five quid a pack. Three for £12.50.
The script is emotive, but the style restricts the performances.
Based on the ocean of tears flooding out of press night, selling TheaTears at every performance of The Normal Heart (now at the National Theatre’s Olivier) would make enough money to stage another War Horse. Probably a whole War Stable. Maybe even pay for Imelda Staunton to do this year’s Christmas show if you’re lucky with the matinees.
The levels of emotion on display may be unsurprising when you consider the themes of a play that will always be prefixed with the words seminal and AIDS. Author, activist, and all-round angry man, Larry Kramer wrote and set The Normal Heart in the early 80s. Looking at it now, the play is as much a part of that time as the events it purposefully pushes into the audience’s faces.
More than just another gay play
It’s shocking to remember this recent time before AIDS was AIDS. A time when something was known to be killing gay men, and the world shrugged its shoulders in response. Some looked on with sadness. Few had time to care. The men dying were ‘other’. They talked like girls and fucked like whores. The haters thought the virus was deserved. The liberals thought it was expected.
Into this world came The Normal Heart. It was more than just another ‘gay play’. It raised awareness of the lack of investment, time, or even care offered by governments. It put human faces onto half-known statistics. It elevated the view – Kramer’s own – that gay men had to stop thinking with their dicks and take responsibility for their own deaths.
A is for activist. A is for anger
The play’s impact is as much down to Kramer as the story it tells. Kramer put the anger into activist. In the fight for equality, he took the fight literally, shouting first, asking questions later, and even then, only occasionally. His approach saw him cast as an outsider not only by those he was fighting against but by those he was fighting for.
In 1981, he founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the only service to support HIV positive people.
In 1982, he was thrown out for his angry confrontational approach.
In 1983, he started writing The Normal Heart.
The never-ending tirade that shouts and spits at you from the script makes you think he didn’t stop for breath between any of that time.
The result is a play that doesn’t try to evoke empathy. It grabs you by the throat and punches and punches and punches until you acquiesce.
When people knew nothing about ‘gay’ – let alone this ‘gay disease’ – there was no time for subtlety. In 2021, watching is like gorging everything on offer at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In place of the bowls of chewy prawn crackers and tepid samosas, it wheels on plate after plate of debates, diatribes, disappointments and death, death, death. We are force fed so much dramatic emotion, not crying may cause ruptures.
If it were possible to make the style more palatable to an audience today, director Dominic Cooke has made no attempt at trying. We might be watching a performance not only about 1985 but from 1985. It shows us how much writing has developed in this time. Our ears have become attuned to writing that is, to put it plainly, an awful lot better.
A pick-and-mix of never-spoken speech
The overcooked cliché is only ever heard in scripts ‘of a time’, never in real life. The lumpy dialogue that has characters ‘ask and answer’ rather than listen and converse. The overused needless NONologue – those 5-minute self-revelatory speeches each character has that are stuffed full of emotional trigger keywords. The speeches delivered to somewhere into the middle distance whilst their acting counterpart demonstrates the value of the classes they took on “pretend listening”. The speeches perfect for auditions but patronising for audiences.
It’s a pick-and-mix of never-spoken speech. The stuff we would expect from a first-time amateur writer today. From the fill in the blanks of “XXX isn’t my problem, YYY is my problem” and “You take care of the XXX, I’ll take care of the YYY”, to the emotionless emotion of “You are the only XXX I can’t (or can) be YYY with” and “I XXX him. I’ve never XXXed anyone so deeply before”.
There’s the technique of semi-repetition used in no real argument ever outside of school or soap opera. After “Now wait a minute”, comes “No, you wait a minute”. “Get off my back” precedes “Get off my ass”. “You’re not my mother” gets “Yes, I am”. (Well, not quite but it wouldn’t seem out of place.)
The Battles of the Hands-on-Hips
Characterisation is also by numbers. This production proudly demonstrates diversity in its casting which is to be applauded. When it comes to sexuality, I personally neither know nor care how the (mostly male) actors playing (mostly gay) characters define themselves.
But for a play that challenges gay stereotyping, there seems far too much reliance on flouncing exits, flailing hands, tossing heads, and raised eyebrows. Some of the confrontational scenes could be subtitled the Battles of the Hands-on-Hips.
Blind acceptance and uncomfortable underplaying
The script is emotive, but the style restricts the performances. There are broadly two sorts of approaches seen here.
There is blind acceptance where you focus on acting technique to make up for lack of truth. You raise your voice when the stage direction says ‘shouting’. When it says “thinking”, you vaguely stare downstage.
Ben Daniels as the main protagonist Ned Weeks (aka Voice of Kramer) is good at shouting. He is good at making his words heard. His performance is good. And nice.
Liz Carr as Dr Emma is good at speaking quickly. It is a good way to show she is frustrated. Though Carr stumbled on several lines in the opening scene, she is still good because we got the gist. Which is nice.
Alternatively, there is uncomfortable underplaying. This more natural delivery is probably heard more often in theatre performances today, but with the dated inflexions on the page, it is a struggle to maintain.
Luke Norris as Weeks/Kramer’s friendly nemesis – the mild-mannered serial monogamist Bruce Niles – underplays so hard that it’s difficult to judge his feelings about being the possible carrier and cause of every one of his boyfriend’s deaths.
And you can’t help but think everyone is overreacting as they try to calm Mickey (Daniel Meeks) when he gives what is more ‘mild-mannered update’ than ‘over-exhausted breakdown’.
A play of impact, not quality
There are plays that will be remembered forever because they are classics. Even those of their time are written in a way that makes them timeless. The Normal Heart will be remembered because of its impact, not its quality.
We should remember that the voice it gave to the ignored minority began the journey to the very different world we are in today. A world where we voice opinions on Prep and gay marriage, to Johan and Johannes and Drag Race without it being a big deal. For these reasons, The Normal Heart has a rightful place in history. It should be studied in schools. It should always be remembered. And it should be revered.
What it shouldn’t be is performed.