The Normal Heart
Dunstan Playhouse
State Theatre Company South Australia
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Perhaps what’s most striking about this “largely autographical” play, The Normal Heart, by celebrated American playwright and gay-rights activist Larry Kramer (who sadly died in May 2020), is how relevant it is today. Like most major civil rights that have recently suffered setbacks (acquittal of multiple police officers accused of killing black Americans, reversal of Roe v Wade, the rise of fascism in Italy, the Taliban’s second innings, the list goes on…), what many on the progressive end of the political spectrum miss – much to the chagrin of gay rights activists – is that the current US Supreme Court has hinted at reversing the 2015 landmark decision to strike down all national and state restrictions on same-sex marriage – and that there’s an entire well-funded anti-gay rights apparatus in place working behind-the-scenes (and sometimes out in the open) to bring back oppressive laws. Dean Bryant even refers to the play as a “continued call to action” (as well as a “history lesson”) in his director’s notes.

Matt Hyde as Bruce and Mitchell Butel as Ned – Photo by Matt Byrne

Set in part-hospital, part-upmarket New York apartment, Jeremy Allen‘s set design leaves plenty of negative-space that can be morphed into “an ambiguous room” in the town hall, the campaign headquarters or a lawyer’s office. The actors conduct their own set and scene changes which results in fluid transitions and leaves no room for stillness between passionate moments – never letting the intensity drop.

A staging technique that stood out was that actors who were not in the scene would stay on stage – sometimes in the background, sometimes on the periphery – often reacting subtly to the scene and almost never taking their eyes off the action. It created an intense magnifying-glass-in-the-sun like focus on the crisp, eloquent and passionate dialogue, and had the added effect of conveying both – how a community is all-in during times of crisis, and the feeling that they were loitering outside hospitals/medical centres waiting for someone to do something (an image that immediately conveys “health crisis of the neglected”).

The cast was exceptional in their ability to hold the audience’s undivided attention, which is rare for a play that runs over two hours with an interval. Mitchell Butel, playing the protagonist Ned, manages to be equally likeable and frustrating, and despite his confrontational manner, you root for him because he flatly conveys that a crisis like this is no time for niceties.

Another stand-out performance was Emma Jones‘ portrayal of Dr. Emma Brookner – the doctor who first discovers the virus and implores Ned to act with urgency. At the risk of jeopardising her career, Emma’s unwavering dedication is empathetically delivered by Jones’ straight-talking teacher who is stern-because-she-cares-about-you demeanour.

All the heavy drama on stage is deftly complemented by a soft yet forceful live background score – so in tune with the action that sometimes you forgot it was there – Clara Gillam-Grant (cello) and Michael Griffiths (piano) almost blend into the stage with their subtle presence.

A production not to be missed – with smart people making passionate Sorkinesque arguments, performances that invoked applause after almost every scene – and a five minute standing ovation with most of the audience sobbing through it – The Normal Heart, despite it’s heavy themes should be required watching for teens and adults alike – and importantly for those (especially on the left) who believe that fighting for gay-rights is a thing of the past. Take your friends and family with you, they’ll thank you for it.

Sahil Choujar

Photos by Matt Byrne

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