Adam Ishaque reviews The Normal Heart, directed by Caroline Christie and Frazer Hadfield, which went up in the Byre Theatre 10th-12th February. 

 

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New York City citizens searching helplessly to find and eradicate a disease that is drastically reducing its gay population are the setting of The Normal Heart. The play, written by Larry Kramer, was expertly brought to the stage by Caroline Christie and Frazer Hadfield in a manner which transcended all elements traditionally expected of a student production. Widely publicised in the weeks leading up to it, the show had much to deliver and it deserves the praise of being one of the finest shows on the calendar.

The story is largely known: a writer named Ned Weeks attempts to erect an organisation to help people who are falling off the map due to a mysterious disease (understood by the audience to be HIV/AIDS). The characters, mostly gay, are led to blame themselves and their lifestyles of freely engaging in sex in the city. As the story progresses the fatalities come closer and closer to home for Ned, leading to a traumatic and heart-wrenching conclusion. It is an incredibly emotional tale that left few dry eyes in the house.

This was largely a result of the stellar acting talent put on display. Jared Leibmiller shone while playing the emotionally trapped Ned Weeks, who becomes so afraid of living freely he finds himself dismissing his lover, Felix. Leibmiller wonderfully balances the determination in Ned’s mission to eradicate this disease for larger gain with sheer desperation to ensure his partner can remain in his life. Similar credit must be awarded to Tom Giles, playing Felix Turner, who commands a vast evolution from confident New York Times editor to dependent lover with nothing left to lose. While the intimacy between these two was lost at some stages, it was thankfully recovered by how passionately they delivered their roles, affirming the strength of their relationship.

Alongside them was a strong performance from Cara Mahoney who played Dr. Emma Brookner, a character who suffered from polio and is thus confined to a wheelchair. Mahoney develops from placid, stone-faced medic to a fighter looking for any and all opportunities to bring this disease to an end. In particular, the scene depicting her frustration at the lack of funding to aid sufferers showed Mahoney at her finest; seeing the contrast between her vehemence and sudden strength – especially when compared to her earlier, more passive approach – was particularly poignant.

The play was largely composed of scenes that displayed a character’s strength in wanting to be understood and much of the intensity was achieved by the volume with which many of the actors delivered their speeches. Thankfully, the attention to articulation ensured none of these moments were lost or understated. The theme of homosexual identity itself delivered a great challenge to the actors involved in the organisation, all of whom stood up to this challenge of portraying a distinct character battling their insecurities while still having to fight the stigma against their identity.

Christie and Hadfield had the audience immersed in this setting by empathising with and supporting a range of characters who were afraid they would be the next one. The direction clearly demonstrated the presentation of a clear and cogent message collectively found in all of the characters’ complications. An idea of impending doom bookended the show: at the beginning and end the cast was dispersed across the stage in a presentation of diversity, staring unfeelingly at the audience, which highlighted the lack of mercy the disease showed and continues to show to anybody.

Ultimately, the passion of the production team was distinguishable throughout. With each line, piece of costume, makeup and movement, Christie and Hadfield ensured that this play (that always has something to say) said it right. With a fantastic use of staging and an impeccable cast, The Normal Heart as a text has once again achieved its deserved merit in performance.

 

 

Adam Ishaque

 

Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/NormalHeartStA