Theatre review: The Normal Heart

A play about the AIDS/HIV pandemic is perennially relevant.

For the original 1985 Off-Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, set designers painted the theatre’s walls with statistics about the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, one of which was the total number of US cases. This figure had to be crossed out and updated between every performance. Program notes for this month’s State Theatre Company South Australia production, directed by award-winning theatre maker Dean Bryant and Adelaide’s own Connor Reidy, now put the global number of cases since the start of the epidemic at over 84.2 million. 

From its first scene, The Normal Heart is full of alarming statistics. As it opens, we meet ‘big-mouthed’ writer Ned Weeks, played here with great warmth, vulnerability, and humour by State Theatre Company Artistic Director Mitchell Butel. Ned, concerned about news of a ‘rare cancer’ that is beginning to spread through the gay community, has come to visit the pioneering Dr Emma Brookner (portrayed masterfully by Emma Jones), who impresses upon him the need for swift action and leadership. The urgency of this growing crisis is emphasised by the steady stream of patients who quietly file in and out of Dr Brookner’s examining room in the back corner of the stage throughout the play.

With the help of friends, Ned founds a crisis organisation, but in the face of fear, uncertainty, misinformation, and an infuriating lack of action from the government and media, tensions threaten to split the group. Matt Hyde is Bruce, the cautious, likeable ‘good cop’ (to Ned’s ‘bad cop’) and the organisation’s elected leader. Those working alongside him include charming Southerner Tommy (Anthony Nicola in his stage acting debut) and overworked Health Department employee Mickey (the engaging Evan Lever). 

This is a play centred on relationships and conversations, packed with fast dialogue and enough climactic, emotionally charged speeches for every character to have their moment in the spotlight. While these scenes effectively capture the unrelenting stress and horror of those early years, there are also quieter moments, no less moving, that chart Ned’s changing relationships with new lover Felix (Ainsley Turner) and lawyer brother Ben (a particularly powerful performance from Mark Saturno). 

While past productions have opted for a simple, unadorned set, here designer Jeremy Allen has filled in more details of the offices, apartments, and hospital spaces that make up Ned’s New York. Live music from pianist Michael Griffiths and cellist Clara Gillam-Grant is a beautiful accompaniment. When characters are not directly involved in a scene, they stand against the edges of the stage, in shadow but still visible to the audience: a poignant reminder that every action and decision is made with the community in mind. Deeply personal though this story is, it is never just one man’s struggle. 

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Kramer’s play is at once a blistering indictment of society’s failure to protect those who were most vulnerable, and an ode to the men and women who fought to the end to help their friends. It also feels particularly pertinent as we continue to navigate the fallout of the current pandemic. This is a perennially vital piece of theatre. 

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

State Theatre Company South Australia
Director: Dean Bryant
Assistant Director: Connor Reidy
Set and Costume Designer: Jeremy Allen
Composer: Hilary Kleinig
Sound Designer: Andrew Howard
Musician: Clara Gillam-GranCast: Mitchell Butel, Michael Griffiths, Matt Hyde, Emma Jones, Evan Lever, Ainsley Melham, Anthony Nicola,AJ Pate, Mark Saturno

Tickets: $39-$80

The Normal Heart will be performed until 15 October 2022

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.