Review by Celia Finter
“We’re living through war, but where they’re living it's peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.” Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart, 1985.
“[Aboriginal people] are fighting a war... to the non-aboriginal people here, help us stop the war. Help us stop the war.” Wayne “Coco” Wharton at the Cassius Turvey Vigil, Meanjin (Brisbane), 2 November 2022.
Directed by Michelle Carey and Anna Loren, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart takes us back to the early 1980’s where the discovery of the AIDS virus in New York began to decimate the lives of young gay men. In their Director’s notes, Carey and Loren discuss the recent Covid pandemic and the response from governments as a juxtaposition to the response to the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. The amount of media and money which we’ve all witnessed being injected into controlling the spread of Covid, and securing the health and safety of those who would be most affected, has been unmissable. The response seen in The Normal Heart by the local, state, and federal governments of the early 1980s USA is contrastingly horrific - but, even more so, horrifyingly still at play in a variety of ways for a number of minorities here in Australia.
Two nights before attending this brilliant production of The Normal Heart, I attended a vigil for Cassius Turvey. Speakers pointedly accused governments and officials of aiding long held racist propaganda against Indigenous people, which is killing (through murder or inadequate access to healthcare, education and support), incarcerating, and dismissing them at incomparable rates. The Normal Heart remains an important piece of art which resonates with many issues minorities still deal with in the face of contemporary populism designed to demonise and other them.
Immediately, upon entering the theatre foyer, a brilliant “mixed tape” of songs from the 70s and 80s places your mind firmly in the era. Special mention here to Brooke Austen, the singer who performed in the foyer up until the show started and at post-show drinks and nibbles, she has a divine voice. Throughout the performance, I found myself singing along to many other well known tracks. It's wonderful how music can evoke an era in this way. I do wish I’d heard Jo Jackson’s Real Men in there somewhere but, of course, there are hundreds of great songs from the era and those that were used served extremely well in the setting of the play.
Walking into the theatre space from the foyer, the joy of a 1980’s Gay Nightclub scene was enlivening and wonderful. Anyone currently dealing with the horror of recent streaming series about a serial killer who took the lives of young gay men in the same era, like myself, may have an odd sense of foreboding - but, here there was joy. A welcoming embrace of greetings and smiles as the audience moved through the dancers, dancing with them at times, before taking their seats.
The stage design is small and simple, with great use of lights and graffiti-esque colour splashed on otherwise black walls. The artwork is joyous but not overwhelming and, because of the small size of the stage, furniture and props were used efficiently and quickly manipulated between scenes. The size of the stage works masterfully well to create an intimate story experience, and helps to form excellent flow through the story because of quick scene changeovers. Costumes and makeup were understated and in keeping with the early 80’s; I particularly adored the moustache (I presume actually grown by the actor, bravo) worn by Felix.
The highlight of this production is undoubtedly the performances. Every performance was delivered with passion, humour and dedication. All of the actors performed with various US accents and, while a native may have heard some slips, I doubt even they would have had much to fault. The relationship arc of the two main characters, Ned and Felix (played by Gregory J Wilken and Felix Jarvis respectively), is beautifully and honourably played out. The love between these two characters is real and full of flaws and joy. What could easily have been a voyeuristic glimpse into their world was instead thoughtful, loving, and grounding. The attention to staging and support for the character Dr Emma Brookner (played on this occasion by Madeleine Little, who is herself a wheelchair user), deserves considerable recognition. Ms Little, who worked with directors and producers to achieve better access, was confident in the space and performed exceptionally well.
The Normal Heart is an absolute standout among the current theatre circuit in Brisbane and will be running until the 1st of December, World AIDS Day.