‘The Normal Heart’ was intimate.
In the past few years, COVID has proved how a government can respond to a pandemic but this course of action had not always been taken in the past. ‘The Normal Heart’ rewinds to the 80s during the rise of the HIV and AIDS epidemic; a time where a government response was scarcely seen. A time in which homophobia and judgement led to the deaths of millions.
A dramatization of author, Larry Kramer’s own experience, the story follows Ned Weeks, the gay founder of a prominent HIV advocacy committee. Full of a desperate passion, Ned strives to raise awareness of the disease that is killing friends around him. Alongside his activism, is his love life as he falls for Felix Turner, a New York Times writer. But even with this newfound love, Ned finds himself isolated from his own brother, Ben, and even his own community as his abrasive activist techniques fail to emit a government response.
When entering the cosy Ad Astra theatre, audiences are invited to walk across the stage which in it’s pre-show state is a pumping gay night club, complete with actors welcoming you to join in the party. The stage walls are dripping with rainbow paint and likewise, the entire atmosphere is dripping with queer energy. B’Elanna Hill’s pre-show lighting state reaffirms this with a loud and proud array of rainbow colours.
However, this upbeat energy is quickly interrupted as an actor falls into a coughing fit and the audience is thrust into the action of the play.
As the play progresses, a dim blue transitional state is utilised alongside 80s music, with frequent features of classic Freddy Mercury tunes. The dedication to the 80s era is maintained in Caitlin Hill’s costuming as characters don button ups, patterned jeans and appropriate work suits. Complete with a simplistic set design, the era was clear.
The simplicity of the set was matched with simple blocking for a majority of the performance. Direction by Michelle Carey and Anna Loren allowed the hard-hitting story to speak for itself and dealt with these heavy themes sensitively.
The strongest component of the show was the stellar cast. Taking on the role of leading man, Ned Weeks, was Gregory J Wilken. Wilken’s performance brought a fast paced, stubborn but energetic passion to his character that emphasised his high sense of morality. Playing opposite him as Ned’s love interest, Felix Turner, was Felix Jarvis. Jarvis conveyed such true emotions for Wilken’s character whilst maintaining a grounded but playful, layered performance. His descent into illness was covered with grace and strong physicality. Additionally, Michelle Miall must be applauded for her intimacy coaching as Jarvis and Wilken’s characters truly felt comfortable in each other’s embrace. A memorable moment involves Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ underscoring Wilken and Jarvis whilst moves are made at a first date.
Making up Ned’s advocacy committee was Bruce Niles, Mickey Marcus and Tommy Boatwright played by Sam Hocking, Mathew Alec Costin and Rad Valance respectively. Hocking’s portrayal of Bruce was stoic and stubborn, creating an interesting dynamic with Ned in an almost frenemy type relationship. Contrasting the more reserved nature of Bruce, Costin’s Mickey was loud and proud with quick witted flair throughout his performance. However, Costin did not shy from the depth of his character with a real sense of fear and hurt bursting through during a stress-ridden breakdown that contrasted his previous humorous nature.
Rounding out the committee was Valance’s charming and empathetic depiction of Tommy. With a sweet Southern drawl, Valance had excellent comedic timing during the first act and then later, heartbreaking moments of resigned reflection as the death number continued to increase during the second act.
Completing the cast was Madeleine Little as Doctor Emma Brookner, Luke O’Neill as Ben Weeks and finally, Tom Hardwood and Liam Wallis as multiple characters. They maintained the strong energy of the performance and did justice to a heavy story.
Annabel GilbertIn such an intimate setting, audiences were really invited into the lives of the characters on stage. It would be impossible not to feel touched as you watch their story unfold.
‘The Normal Heart’ performs until Sunday, 27 November 2022 at Ad Astra, Fortitude Valley. For more information visit the Ad Astra website.