The Normal Heart is an important show. In fact it is probably the single most important show you will see on the St Andrews stage this year. It also couldn’t care less whether or not you think it’s a good play – I think it couldn’t care less as to whether or not it is a good play. That’s not the point – it is a play that wants you to act, and it will use any means at its disposal to do so. Any star rating or review as to the quality of the show is absolutely beside the point – it is not so much a play, but rather a call to arms.
That said there is much to love about this production. Coming from the directorial team of Frazer Hadfield and Caroline Christie, The Normal Heart is certainly an ambitious production, but not one that disappoints. The play guides us through the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic in New York via the eyes of Ned Weeks, a stand-in for the playwright Larry Kramer, with a raw energy that is staggering. The direction has a deft visual touch that is unmatched elsewhere in St Andrews theatre; the Byre’s stage transformed into a clinical canvas, malleable for every scene. The set’s defining aspect comes in the shape of the overhanging bulbs, gloomily illuminating the stage even through the darkness, like fading stars, or overhanging souls, casting a shadow over the events that take place.
One might expect such a play to falter with regards to the performances, due to the intensity of the script. Yet for the most part these were phenomenal – Jared Leibmiller (playing Ned Weeks) and Tom Giles (Felix) magnetic in their lead roles. Giles brought a level of subtlety and pain to his portrayal of Weeks’ lover, serving as the manifestation of what was at stake. Weeks acts as counterpart to Felix – a man violently alive, and with a rage that threatens to bring the house down with it. At one point in the play the character of Tommy tries to calm another activist, calling him a hero. Somewhere in the corner Weeks stands on stage, witnessing a breakdown he has played no small part in. Weeks is not a hero, but rather a man who failed – failed to be heard, failed to get through, to fight just hard enough. In this role, Leibmiller was electric on stage: a visceral, physical punch to the gut that left you gasping for air; his performance alone is worth the price of entry. Mention must also be given to the as always on point Cara Mahoney, unrecognisable here in her role as Emma, a doctor attempting to lead the charge against the disease.
With all this said, the play had a few issues. At times the script threatened to fall into mawkishness, and had no qualms with being openly manipulative. While such techniques make for an effective polemic, it left me with the feeling that numerous moments could have been lifted out of Love Story, with cancer swapped for AIDS. The core narrative is more than harrowing enough without these specific beats. Certain performances did not help this, leaving clunky what needed to be smoothed over.
Ultimately, like its protagonist, The Normal Heart does not give a damn if you might disapprove of its tactics. They may have prevented me from being as enveloped in the piece as I wished I could have been, but they still achieved what Kramer wanted them too. This manipulation, and this rage are vital parts of what makes this an important thing. As much today as when it went up over twenty years ago, rather then asking you for its praise, The Normal Heart forces you to sit down for two hours. It hollows you. The end is not when the final curtain falls – with The Normal Heart there is no end – there is no catharsis, not today, not until you do the one thing that Kramer has been hammering into you: fight.