Review: The Normal Heart at The Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review By Lisa Lanzi


“The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.” WH Auden “September 1, 1939”


There are some nights at the theatre when the synergy of the many elements is in total harmony and you realise that you are in the presence of something truly remarkable.


To begin with, Larry Kramer’s dense writing and pulsing vernacular leaps effortlessly from page to stage. In lesser hands the torrent of information-rich language, rage, and emotion within the script might read as didactic or overdone. However, in State Theatre Company of SA’s The Normal Heart the spoken rhythms, pace, virtuosic performances, design, and precision direction all unite to flawlessly bring this significant play to life.


Opening off-Broadway in 1985 at The Public Theatre and running for 294 performances The Normal Heart was produced by Joseph Papp (A Chorus Line, Shakespeare in the Park) and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. The somewhat biographical work focuses on the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City in the early 80s. Larry Kramer became a renowned and controversial activist in the area of HIV/AIDS when, after 1980, he got involved as people he knew became ill and died. With a group of friends in 1981 he founded the group that came to be known as Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) to provide social services support to the growing numbers of men who were contracting the then mystery illness. Later, in 1987, Kramer was a speaker for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) when others embraced his political agenda agreeing that GMHC had become politically impotent.


Much awarded, prolific director and writer Dean Bryant has long been an admirer of this play and has assembled a dream cast. A brief opening scene graced with haze, disco music and lighting imprints on us the merest hint of delicious early 80s gay freedoms, soon to be curtailed by an invisible, unknown virus. All scene changes during the two acts are managed quickly and pragmatically by the cast in low light amid the very serviceable two-level set. Actors not involved in a scene often remain in the background like invested ghost figures, reminiscent perhaps of those lost to us. Another aspect of Bryant’s sure direction is the apt and ferocious (but not rushed) pace which serves to heighten emotion and urgency, while giving meaning and weight to the characters’ sometimes quite lengthy passages. The choreographic placement of the actors and the use of the whole space is very satisfying and permits the audience to focus on central action but have an awareness of ‘other’ such as inhabiting a city presents. Although much of the play runs on high emotions, humour and gentleness also have a place and Bryant has masterfully designed the journey between these states right up to the simple, affecting and visually arresting ending.


Without exception, the performers bring enormous conviction and talent to the stage; as an ensemble, the deep connection and camaraderie is clear and indeed necessary to the success of this work. Mitchell Butel delivers a powerful protagonist in Alexander "Ned" Weeks who lets fly with indignation, despair, honest and raw take-downs, and owns an uncompromising commitment to his belief that direct action is the only way forward. Also apparent is a tangible chemistry in heartfelt scenes with Ned’s partner Felix (Ainsley Melham) and deep vulnerability in the relationship with Dr Brookner (Emma Jones). Alongside his strong, emotive vocal range, Butel endows Ned with an on-edge, slightly awkward physicality that hones the character beautifully.


Ainsley Melham, last seen in Adelaide in Watershed, is a revelation as the initially self-possessed Felix Turner. The arc of this character is huge and Melham ably traverses this with presence and empathy. Emma Jones is a convincing and imposing figure as Dr Emma Brookner (based on Dr Linda Laubenstein, the early HIV/AIDS researcher), giving us a glimpse of the fierce energy needed as a woman in the medical field (then and now). Jones also allows us insight into the character of a frazzled researcher with no definitive answers (apart from recommending abstinence) or financial support and whose patients are dying in front of her. Evan Lever commands the role of Mickey Marcus in his State Theatre Company SA debut and Matt Hyde shines as the publicly closeted and urbane Bruce Niles. These roles are diametrically opposed in terms of the characters’ confidence and status but both demand huge range. Both Hyde and Lever conquer two of the most emotional monologues within the play and compellingly cast a spell of stillness and awe.


Anthony Nicola, AJ Pate, Mark Saturno and Michael Griffiths round out the ensemble. Nicola is an endearing and compassion-filled Southern queen while Saturno is Ned’s successful, straight, corporate brother attempting an understanding of life-choices that don’t align with his own. Both characters are beautifully written and each actor brings to their role acute observation and finely-tuned interpretation. Pate and Griffiths give us various characters who are excellent foils to the main roles. Now and then, a few accent lapses can be detected but are insignificant given the impact of the whole.


Music on stage, courtesy of Michael Griffiths on piano and cellist Clara Gillam-Grant, is a combination of original compositions by Hilary Kleinig alongside some 80s arrangements. Additional sound design from Andrew Howard provides a superb aural ‘glue’ to further integrate an already cohesive production. Set and costume designer Jeremy Allen has brought the era to life with an ingenious, multi-use set and appropriate fashions.


Within the narrative of The Normal Heart there resonates an echo of our contemporary experience in terms of the Covid19 pandemic and new threats such as Monkey Pox. More important however is the relevance to any historic period of activism - and attendant inaction - and how that affects those closest to the issue as well as for those who, for whatever reasons, decide to bury their heads and cast attention elsewhere so that change is delayed.


This South Australian premiere is a disturbing reminder of the desperately sad and frustratingly slow and indifferent response at every level to what was coined “the gay plague”. It is also a celebration of queerness and progression to the era and place we now live in where, for the most part, one can live truthfully. (I do not wish to discount the experiences of some queer folk who still encounter circumstances where they are endangered.) The Normal Heart (title taken from a line in WH Auden’s September 1, 1939) is a deep and convincing lesson for humanity to live by and with awareness, equity, compassion and intelligence, but above all, love.

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