REVIEW: The Normal Heart
WORDS BY BIANKA FARMAKIS
“It’s summer 1981 in New York City, men are men and shorts are short”
From the moment you step into the Regent Street Theatre, you lose yourself in a world that strips you right down to your booty shorts and face glitter and throws you into the post Studio 54, kitsch 80s New York nightlife.
Saturating its audience in disco lights and effervescent colours, the Normal Heart beats entrancing disco music through the veins and arteries of its audience as it welcomes them with a musical number so camp and fabulous it makes Priscilla Queen of the Desert look like a pre-emancipation serf.
And it is from the first five minutes we witness just what this play is going to do to us: gauge our interests, lift our spirits, and then turn our smiles, cheers and claps into furrowed brows and gaping mouths as we see the first of many characters become covered in lesions and fall victim to the insidious mysterious virus that plagues the duration of the play.
There are 8 blood filled balloons on stage, and number one pops within the first five minutes.
But let’s take it back to the start – director Mélaine Ricard-Boulieu manifests his vision from before audiences even walk through the doors. Designing an advertisement poster as controversial as it is show-stopping the nude male figures capture exactly what the play is about – raw passion, sexual liberation and the subtle fragility of the human form.
The Normal Heart explores the tumultuous beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, and while never explicitly naming the disease in the play, it documents the struggle of a writer and a doctor working furiously to negotiate the volatile virus taking lives quicker than Michael Jackson took number one hit singles in the 80s.
Joshua Shediak plays the leading role of Ned Weeks – a rebel, a rouser and most importantly a fighter, and attaches all the qualities that make and break incredible leaders throughout time into a performance as energetic as it is enigmatic. He leaves audiences anticipating what will happen next – will he continue to be controversial and contemptuous in his approach or follow suit to his political activist’s counterpart Billy Gleeson’s Bruce Niles, who plays the role with the same dignity, decency and self-loathing fear as the semi-closeted President of the activist’s society himself.
Riley Dolahenty plays suave writer Felix Turner with a powerful fragility, complimenting Shediak’s passionate rage with a sensitivity that nuances his character’s movements at each point of the one-act play – from confident, charming strides of seduction to his heart-breaking descent into the final stages of illness. It should be noted that in a play dense with complex dialogue, ranging from the hilarious to the harrowing, while there were inconsistencies in accents among some of the character, two particular monologues stood out.
Rosie Licence’s portrayal of doctor Emma Brookner, an invalid with a dry sense of humour and better common sense holds an uncompromising strength, whether on stage or not. In scenes of examination she perpetuates a brave support for terminally ill characters, while manifesting a terrifying softness as she expresses her fear in not knowing where the disease has come from, what it can do, how it is spread or anything that riddles the patients she’s watched walk to their graves for months on end. As she delivers a powerful and emphatic plea to gain support behind her studies into the AIDS virus, Licence’s clinical tone at the beginning of the play turns callous and demanding, shedding the façade of professionalism to engage in an emotional plea that feels like the only shred of hope there is for these patients.
Similarly, Ben Sterlin’s portrayal of Mickey Marcus falls somewhere on the passion spectrum between Sean Penn’s performance in Milk championing gay rights, to Al Pacino screaming “ATTICA” in Dog Day Afternoon. Delivering what is the stand out monologue in the play’s final moments, Sterlin combines an incredible vocal intonation with erratic physicality that perfectly captures the frustrations of activists during the AIDS epidemic.
Our highest accolades extend though the director Mélaine Ricard-Boulieu, whose unparalleled passion for the theatre sees him not only stage a play during his brief stay as an exchange student at the University of Sydney, but as a creative visionary who overcame the unfortunate collapse of the Cellar Theatre.
So to the play the literally brought the roof down of the cellar theatre, we say bravo.