Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Karen Vickery
The Courtyard, Canberra Theatre Centre to October 29
Review by Len Power 22 October 2016
‘The Normal Heart’ is an autobiographical play by Larry Kramer about the start of the AIDS crisis in New York in the early 1980s. As Karen Vickery says in her Director’s Notes in the program, ‘few of us who were young adults in the ‘80s are not scarred by living through the most frightening epidemic imaginable’. As one of those young adults at the time myself, revisiting this nightmarish time through this play wasn’t easy.
There was a possibility that the play would now seem dated, especially as it deals with situations that occurred over 30 years ago. An HIV/AIDS diagnosis, while still a very real danger, is no longer a certain death sentence as it was back then. The play as seen now may be even more effective as a warning against complacency and moral judgements. It also underlines the importance of love and compassion and the courage to stand up for what you believe in. As the play unfolded, it was unsettling to hear the same blinkered arguments used 30 years ago that we’re hearing now in the marriage equality debate.
On a simple set with the names of Australian AIDS epidemic victims scribbled on the walls, Karen Vickery’s production of the play is intense and confronting and extremely well-acted. That most of the cast would have been born after the time period of the play has not been a barrier to getting under the surface of the characters and their motivations. It’s a highly emotional play with frequent raging confrontations between characters. The director has kept a tight control on the emotional levels, keeping the actors’ delivery honest and very real.
Jarrad West gives a very strong performance as Ned Weeks, the activist obviously modelled on the playwright, Larry Kramer. It would be an uncomfortable experience living and working with this abrasive man, but West also shows his capacity to love with great skill. Jordan Best is simply superb as Dr. Emma Brookner, a woman desperately trying to deal with a mysterious medical killer and an unfeeling bureaucracy.
Michael Sparks gives a very real characterisation of an older, mannered gay man of that era and Riley Bell gives his best performance to date as a sharp-tongued young Southern queen who is all heart underneath. Christopher Zuber captures all the right physical and emotional aspects of the closeted, macho Bruce Niles and Will Huang gives a marvellously real and emotionally strong performance as the doomed Felix Turner. There is also fine support in the smaller roles by Rob deFries, Teig Sadhana and Christopher Carroll.
‘The Normal Heart’ is a fine play very well done by this company. It’s confronting and moving but it also has a startling immediacy. If you love good theatre, don’t miss it.
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program on Saturday mornings from 9am.