Fourth Wall Theatre’s adaptation of ‘The Normal Heart’ can be described as anything but ‘normal’. I am not one to dictate audience expectations, but I am certain that anybody who finds themselves in The Assembly Rooms Theatre this week, watching Larry Kramer’s harrowing portrayal of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, will teeter on the verge of tears for most of the production.
Andrew Shires (Ned) and Andrew Finn (Felix) were so engrossing in their portrayal of gay lovers and prominent New York figures, that one could not but be left entirely emotionally-crippled by their performance. It was heart-wrenching to know, that Ned, who had once changed his name from Alexander, in search of a new identity, now sought to abandon this new one that had come to define him and the person he loved. The poignancy of their relationship, the steep and sombre deterioration of Felix’s health, was portrayed with a careful and captivating pathos. The undeniable chemistry between the actors drew attention to the gravity of the subject matter with which the play dealt. In particular, the fortitude of Shires’ stand-offs with the committee of his organisation and the vulnerable intimacy with which he faced Finn, astounded in their range. And although this play provides consistently quotable lines and sharp, touching monologues, it was entirely to the credit of the actors that they could unleash the emotions hidden within the text.
The rest of the cast, in contrast, felt somehow secondary. Although at times, such as when Joe Stanton (Bruce), reveals the anguish he feels at his last lover’s death, there was a heightened emotional depth, there were other moments, which fell flat or were unintentionally comical. The biggest flaw was the accents of most of the actors, especially during the first few scenes of the play, which flitted from intentional New York accents to something unidentifiable. Another lapse was how lines were handled. A couple of actors tripped on their lines, and others, especially when rattling off statistics, should be careful to slow down in order to give the audience a chance to catch up with the barrage of information. Most of this however occurred during the first half of the play, and can be easily attributed to first-night nerves. Once the actors settled into their roles, there was little to distract the audience from the unravelling tragedy.
It was the set and particularly the painting of AIDS-related statistics across the stage, which would dominate any audience member’s first impression. At once, it united the two levels of the stage, and reduced the seemingly unworkable depth of the Assembly Rooms Theatre to a navigable space. As the action of the play commenced, it was fitting that the stage looked like a page ripped out of a newspaper, since Felix was a reporter at The New York Times and Ned was a public figure seeking to gain publicity for the AIDS epidemic in any publication. As for the set, the school desks and the cheap plastic chairs, at first appeared distasteful. Nevertheless in the context of the play, they became a reflection of how characters outside the gay community were treating the AIDS virus with disregard or implicit disgust, and the overall bleakness of the play. The starkness of the set similarly gave the actors the space they needed for their performance.
Sophie Wright (Director) and Claire Simonis (Assistant Director) must also be commended for how advantageously they made use of the multi-layered stage. While Ned was feverishly defending his political tactics to Bruce, Felix lying in the background, first healthy and then ill, illuminated how deeply the personal was involved in the larger scale of the AIDS epidemic for these men. However, transitions were clumsy to begin with, as they distracted from the scenes happening at the front of the stage. In the second half of the play they were better integrated with the action, and it didn’t feel as if you were yanked out of the emotional cocoon that the actors had created every time you noticed someone moving a chair behind them.
This is not theatre that seeks to entertain. Instead it retains its status as a work of art by being at once educational and wholly engrossing, even to those who may be unacquainted with the full details of the AIDS crisis. The personal grapples with the political, and as the curtain closes on the final scene, there is an overwhelming feeling of being left a pointless survivor in the aftermath of an apocalypse.