Content warnings: The Normal Heart contains coloured, flashing lights and blackouts, loud music, loud voices, coarse language, adult themes, and strong themes of homophobia, illness, death, and grief.
Ad Astra close their 2022 season on a high note with a heartbreaking production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Directed by Michelle Carey and Anna Loren and produced by Gregory J Wilken, who also starred as Ned Weeks, this landmark play focuses on a group of activists in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City.
Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began 40 years ago, more than 40 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses and tens of millions more have been infected with HIV. As we emerge from a pandemic in 2022, resulting in over 5 million deaths to date, it is easy to draw comparisons between the two in watching this production. The Normal Heart depicts the fear and uncertainty of an unknown, fast-spreading virus, the anxious wait for a vaccine – although in the case of HIV/AIDS, this never materialised – and the vastly different response from governments, researchers, and medical professionals to rising case numbers and deaths. The Normal Heart presents a clear commentary on the homophobia underlying this public health response, or lack thereof, and mourns the needless deaths of hundreds of people, most of them young gay men and other queer folk, who had their lives cut short by deliberate inaction from governments and medical bodies around the world.
The Normal Heart follows Alexander “Ned” Weeks (Gregory J Wilken), a gay man living in New York City, as his community faces the deadly new virus. More and more men are falling ill, and many are dying, but there is silence from all levels of government and most medical professionals. One exception is Dr Emma Brookner (Madeleine Little), a polio survivor and one of the few doctors willing to acknowledge the epidemic and help the community, struggling to keep up with rising cases and desperately trying to find funding for further research.
Furious at the lack of action and unable to access support through traditional channels, Ned co-founds the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) with Mickey Marcus (Mathew Alec Costin), Tommy Boatwright (Rad Valance), and Bruce Niles (Sam Hocking), to advocate for and support those who are impacted. The organisation is soon overwhelmed with hundreds of calls and requests for help as the virus spreads and case numbers, and the death toll, rise. With Bruce as president, the GMHC lobbies the mayor for funding and public acknowledgement of the health crisis while providing information, care, and support as best they can with limited resources. Ned’s passionate, but polarising and antagonistic, approach to raising awareness causes tension in the group, and the play also explores Ned’s difficult relationship with his brother Ben (Luke O’Neill), a lawyer whose own homophobia prevents him from fully supporting Ned in his activism.
In the meantime, Ned has fallen in love for the first time in his life, and his deepening relationship with New York Times writer Felix Turner (Felix Jarvis) is a bittersweet undercurrent to the tragedies unfolding around them. The chemistry and comfortable physicality between Wilken and Jarvis held this secondary storyline together through a wide range of emotions and events, with intimacy coaching by Michelle Miall, and in portraying the joys of their evolving relationship.
Fear, distrust, shame, denial, and uncertainty spread through the community alongside the virus, wild theories about its origins abound, and there is no money for research or outreach as the world turns a blind eye to an epidemic that disproportionately impacts gay men. The Normal Heart didn’t turn away from the indignities suffered by those who died, and contemplated the lives that might have been saved by a swifter and more meaningful response to the crisis.
The Normal Heart is largely autobiographical and focuses specifically on the stories of young gay men during the early 80s in New York. Playwright Larry Kramer was a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the organisation depicted in the play, as well as the international organisation ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) following his departure from the GMHC, and confirmed that many of the events and characters in The Normal Heart are borrowed or adapted from his life.
The title of the play is taken from W. H. Auden’s poem September 1, 1939, written on the outbreak of World War II. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was often compared to a war within the play and parallels were drawn by Ned, as a Jewish man, between the public and government’s refusal to help gay men and their refusal to help the Jewish community in Nazi Germany. The play premiered in the mid-1980s and contains some outdated language, particularly in relation to gender, but this was acknowledged by Ad Astra prior to the performance commencing.
The Normal Heart is a significant undertaking, tackling complex historical issues and treading deep emotional territory, and the cast of this production cannot be commended highly enough. All nine actors delivered a consistently outstanding performance, bringing a powerful passion, complexity, and depth of emotion to their work that spilled off the stage. The ensemble was strong and cohesive overall, but each actor also had individual moments to shine. The cast maintained their varied American accents, and remained in character even during partial blackouts and lengthier transitions.
Gregory J Wilken’s passionate, furious energy as Ned was balanced by the restraint and level-headedness of Sam Hocking’s Bruce, and the relaxed charisma of Felix Jarvis’ Felix. The quartet at GMHC also included Rad Valance’s memorably sweet and funny Tommy, and Mathew Alec Costin’s anxious, animated Mickey. The ensemble was rounded out by Madeleine Little as a blunt, exasperated Dr Brookner, Luke O’Neill as stoic Ben Weeks, and Tom Harwood and Liam Wallis in multiple smaller roles, all played with conviction.
The arrangement of stage and seating in the black box theatre at Ad Astra is always a surprise – for The Normal Heart, the doors opened on to the colourful, flashing lights and pumping music of a gay nightclub, and the audience moved through the haze and bodies to find their seats. This proximity to the performers only amplified the significant emotional impact of their work. Small expressions and subtle movements – the intensity in Ned’s eyes when he spoke with Felix, for example – are made visible when there are only a few rows of seats, and this is a further testament to the commitment and skill of the actors.
Set design included rainbow-painted motifs on the walls, and a few key pieces of furniture which were rearranged to create the play’s different settings. Lighting design by B’Elanna Hill created the atmosphere of a nightclub to begin, and colourful lights continued throughout to change or underscore the mood. Costuming by Caitlin Hill emphasised aspects of the characters’ identities and recurred in interesting ways throughout the play, as well as showcasing the fashion of the American 80s, and the soundtrack of the work included hits from the era by Queen, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, ABBA, and many more.
Ad Astra continue to surprise and impress with their versatile theatre space and high calibre acting, presenting a highly polished and deeply moving performance of The Normal Heart that celebrated the staunch activism and advocacy of the time and mourned the lives lost with equal vigour.
The Normal Heart will play at Ad Astra, Fortitude Valley, from 3 – 27 November 2022, with a special performance on World AIDS Day, 1 December.