Review: THE NORMAL HEART at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

A moving and rewarding production.

By: Oct. 05, 2022
Review: THE NORMAL HEART at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Tuesday 4th October 2022.

The State Theatre Company is presenting Larry Kramer's semi-autobiographical play, The Normal Heart, which had its premiere in 1985. It takes us back four decades to the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York. The play is set between 1981 and 1984. The production is beautifully, and sensitively, directed by Dean Bryant, the Associate Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.

If you were around in the 1980s, you would have been aware of HIV/AIDS and, quite possibly, knew people who contracted it, and even died from it. It could have been anybody, perhaps somebody one worked with, or a person who served you in a local shop. It seemed to be unstoppable, with no sign of a cure.

This production certainly has its moments. Some moments are good, some are very good, some are great, and some will tear your heart out. Some, in the first act, are light-hearted, eliciting laughter, but these gradually vanish as the horror and magnitude of the disease grows, along with the anger and frustration at the inaction being taken, from local governments, right up to the President. This is a sensational production from start to finish.

The State Theatre Company's multi-award-winning Artistic Director, Mitchell Butel, plays the central character, Kramer's alter ego, Ned Weeks, who brings together a group of gay New Yorkers to push for the recognition of the unidentified illness that is killing men, and for research to be carried out to find the cause and a cure. Before it became known as HIV/AIDS, it was called the 'gay plague' by the media. The fact that it only seemed to be killing gay men was, no doubt, why it attracted scant attention, the death toll being reported many pages into the newspaper. How very different from the reporting on the COVID pandemic. Kramer and his friends struggled to get funding for research, or to help those who had contracted it, a far cry from the massive amount spent immediately to find a vaccine for COVID, and blanket coverage in all areas of the media.

The play opens in the hospital waiting room, where Craig Donner and Mickey Marcus sit, Craig worrying that he has the as yet unnamed disease, and wondering where his lover, Bruce Niles, has got to, while Mickey comforts him. AJ Pate and Evan Leaver, as Craig and Mickey, create an emotional opening to the play. Mickey works for the New York City Health Department. Ned Weeks sits nearby. David comes out of the doctor's office, with tell-tale purple marks on him, and Craig goes in. Michael Griffiths, as David, engages in a brief conversation with Ned as he leaves. Soon after, Craig comes out, stating that he is going to die. We are still only a few minutes into the play. It is going to get much heavier, and some of those whom we come to know will no longer be there by the end.

Bruce Niles, a banker who is still in the closet, becomes the president of Ned's organisation, and the two often come to loggerheads. Matt Hyde, as Bruce, is a fine foil for Butel's Ned. Butel gives a phenomenal performance as Ned, from softly spoken, to bouts of fury, from supportive of the others, to argumentative and angry with them, aligned with them, and in conflict, in a nuanced interpretation of the role. Actors and directors alike should see this production. They can learn a lot.

This is not, though, one man, with a supporting cast. This is an extremely strong ensemble, with every member offering a superb performance. The whole cast stays onstage, except when an entrance is required. Ned and his friends are cared for by Dr. Emma Brookner, portrayed by Emma Jones, a doctor who contracted poliomyelitis as a child and is now in a wheelchair, a victim of an earlier epidemic. She and Ned agree that there could be a benefit if men stopped engaging in casual sexual encounters, and conflict comes from the others who see this as part of the gay identity. Socioeconomics and perceived identities play a large part in this story. Her intense anger in response when told that a pittance is to be allocated to research, and none to her, is riveting.

Ainsley Melham plays Felix Turner, the fashion writer for the New York Times, who becomes Ned's lover. Their touching love affair is another of the central themes, and his eventual demise is heart-wrenching, tearing Ned apart.

Anthony Nicola plays the enthusiastic and flamboyant Southerner, Tommy Boatwright, who proclaims himself a "Southern bitch". He, too, is attracted to Ned, but realises that it cannot be. Ned's lawyer older brother, Ben Weeks, is played by Mark Saturno, bringing another perspective to bear through his strong characterisation. Michael Griffiths also plays Hiram Keebler but, as well as this, he joins 'cellist, Clara Gillam-Grant, accompanying her on piano as they play the atmospheric compositions of 'cellist/composer, Hilary Kleinig.

Jeremy Adams is responsible for the elaborate and very effective set, lit with his usual skill by Nigel Levings, and the sound design is provided by Andrew Howard. These are just as important as the performances. Set changes, by the cast and crew, are carried out smoothly and swiftly.

An instant standing ovation and several curtain calls said everything that you need to know about this outstanding production. If you don't already have tickets, you'd better hurry.

Photography, Matt Loxton.

2023 Regional Awards

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