Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Normal Heart, Everyman Theatre, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

I asked the question a while ago "are Everyman the best theatre company in Canberra"? And the answer is still, yes, of course they are. They add here to 8 years of theatrical excellence with a production that arouses the heart, mind and outrage in about equal measure. 

"Normal Heart" is the not-very-disguised autobiographical story of Larry Kramer, prominent gay activist, screenwriter and novelist (he wrote the successful 70's film of "Women in Love", the unsuccessful 70's film of "Lost Horizon" and the controversial late 70's novel "Faggots", an exposing story of the risks and emotional minefield of sexual liberation) - and deals with his engagement with the early days of AIDS activism in New York from 1981-1984. The play was first produced in 1985 and burns with passion and outrage as Kramer attempts to process, explain and advocate for what had had just happened and what was still happening to people around him. Kramer is unflinching, not least about himself and his tendency to alienate and bully people around him, but also in the heartbreak and tenderness and sometimes inadvertent comedy that happened at that time. 

Jarrad West plays Ned, the Kramer-analogue, and plays the speechifying with a passion and outrage that, in the early stages, has a slightly comic tinge. There's a vast risk here that the character could be nothing but a self-important polemicist, and West avoids that by keeping Ned flawed, human, and often immediately-guilt-stricken after he's unleashed with both barrels into someone else. In the face of an inhuman disaster of a disease, he's fighting just as blind as everyone else, and you feel the pain and damage he has. As his love interest, Felix, Will Huang is a warm embracing and frequently comic presence in the early stages - so much so that as he succumbs to the disease, the heartbreak is all the greater as you see this vigorous engaging stylish man stripped of everything soft and gentle about him as his body continually betrays him. Christopher Zuber is the somewhat straight-arrow head of Gay Men's Health Crisis, a closeted banker whose engagement with the cause is strong but who constantly clashes with Ned, standing toe-to-toe with him as he tries to keep the organisation working with the mainstream rather than fighting it. 

Michael Sparks as one of the core activists plays meek and mild up until the point where he can't take any more and his heart breaks in a monologue of astounding pain and anguish and rage. Riley Bell is stunning as a guy who characterises himself immediately as a southern bitch and proves himself to be a whole lot more - practical, kind, gentle and so very compassionate, presented in a performance of maturity and grace. Jordan Best as a doctor caught up in this cause matches West in intense rage, but shows true bedside manner and care as a woman who has no answers but will not surrender the fight. Rob deFries as Ned's brother is the show's token heterosexual, who balances generosity with his brother with reservations about his hectoring manner and just plain not understanding. homosexuality. Tieg Saldhana scores in cameos both as the show's first AIDS victim and as a crisis-line volunteer, similarly Christopher Carroll presents the show's only true villain as a City Hall worker whose platitudes barely cover his frustratingly pitiful assistance. 

Karen Vickery directs a tight show, balancing light and shade within a rich ensemble, allowing everybody their moment while making sure the story is key. 

In short (and dear god is this not short), yes, you should see this. It's Everyman at their considerable best, doing engaged, relevant, stunningly-performed and richly provoking theatre. Miss it at your peril.