Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Normal Heart: To win a war you have to start one

I'm really looking forward to The Normal Heart, the HBO film of Larry Kramer's monumentally important 1985 play. The was the first truly great play to address the HIV AIDS crisis: a passionate play of politics and polemics that reinvented the civil rights movement. Ned Weeks, the play's central character and Kramer's alter ego, railed against and changed a world that had fallen silent in the face of catastrophe. One of the play's chief targets was President Ronald Reagan, who infamously did not utter the word "AIDS" until September 1985, four years into the epidemic and five months after this play.

It came just a year before Timothy Conigrave's Soft Targets at Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, a play that was Australia's first theatrical response.    

At first, no one wanted to produce The Normal Heart, but it became a triumph for Joe Papp's Public Theater. The film rights were promptly optioned by Barbra Streisand in 1986. It's been a long and troubled journey. At various times John Schlesinger, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes have been attached or interested. Finally, after 30 years, the film will premiere on HBO on May 25. 

Martin Sheen in his Royal Court dressing room
The play and its afterlife have affected me greatly. Holding the Man is one result. I was lucky enough to see the London premiere of The Normal Heart at the Royal Court Theatre. This new production starred Martin Sheen as Ned Weeks. It had such impact that I wrote the actor a fan letter. A few days later he invited me to visit him in his dressing room after a performance: here was an actor of articulated social conscience. He was generous, shared much, and assured me forward.

In March 1989, Sydney Theatre Company gave the Australian premiere, directed by Wayne Harrison with John O'May as Ned Weeks. I wish I had seen it, because it was a landmark production remembered passionately by many.  

In 1992, Kramer wrote a sequel called The Destiny of Me. It was staged Off-Broadway by the Circle Repertory Company at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, directed by Marshall W. Mason, with Jonathan Hadary as Ned. It is one of my most treasured theatre experiences: a three-hour, three-act memory play in the mode of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams which, at the time at least, seemed just as good. The show's star was undoubtedly John Cameron Mitchell as Alexander, the younger Ned in flashback. It was a searingly honest performance, one of the best I have seen, and provided many insights into Larry Kramer himself. A few years later, in 1998, I saw a devoted JCM in the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (for which he also wrote the book) in the 280-seat Jane St Theatre in NYC's West Village. Shortbus soon beckoned for JCM, while Hedwig later beckoned for Neil Patrick Harris, who is now eating up the stage in the Broadway revival.   

The Normal Heart enjoyed its own Broadway revival at the Golden Theatre in 2011. Joe Mantello was Ned, co-directed by Joel Grey (who had played Ned, replacing Brad Davis, during the initial Off-Broadway run) and George C. Wolfe. It won a pack of Tony Awards.

This success of the revival, which newly revealed the play's quality, led to the landing of the long-awaited film version, directed by Ryan Murphy with a blue chip cast including Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff and Joe Mantello. Mark Ruffalo, like Martin Sheen an actor of deep-rooted social conscience and passionate force, will play Ned.

Larry Kramer, who wrote the screenplay, is now 78 and very ill. His is a life lived well.

Mark Rosenthal and Mark Ruffalo in This is Our Youth
(Trivia 1: The Australian director Benedict Andrews and I, both in NYC in 1998, dropped in to see a play we'd heard about - Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth. We enjoyed the show but were both particularly taken by the unknown actor playing Warren - one Mark Ruffalo. The performance led to him being cast as Laura Linney’s drifter brother in Longeran’s Academy Award-nominated 2000 film You Can Count on Me.)

Nick Clegg and Eva Yememakis in The Normal Heart
(Trivia 2: In a student production at Cambridge University in 1988, Ned Weeks was played by Nick Clegg, now the UK Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats.)

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