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Written from the front line at the time the crisis was taking hold, The Normal Heart, the semi-autobiographical play by AIDS activist Larry Kramer, hasn’t been seen in the UK since it debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre some 35 years ago. Ahead of its revival, we caught up the show’s director Dominic Cooke (Associate Director at the National Theatre, and director of the film On Chesil Beach) and its stars Dino Fetscher (who readers will recognise from Russell T Davies’ hit series Cucumber and Years and Years), and Olivier Award-winner and Tony nominee Ben Daniels, to find out more about what’s in store.

“I’m so excited to be doing it, it’s such an amazing play – people just think of it as this kind of political agitprop piece of theatre, but it’s extraordinary,” says Ben. “It’s written by Larry Kramer who was on the ground dealing with this new pandemic, and he started a group called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in his living room, in New York, to deal with this growing crisis, and then he writes a play about the time. It’s a one-off really, it’s like Henry V being written by Henry V!

“He was there at the time, even though GMHC isn’t named in the play as an organisation, I don’t think the word AIDS appears in the play either, it’s just the pandemic that we all know it is. It’s an incredible play, it explores being gay and the fight for equality, and justice for all, as well as being a play about politics and class structure and the birth of a pandemic, which of course we can all identify with. I’m not saying AIDS and Covid are the same thing, they’re very different, but the way those pandemics are handled and believed and managed are similar, it feels current.”

“It’s a history play written by someone who was actually there, and that’s really unusual,” continues Dominic. “He was part of the early organisation – the beginning of the response to the AIDS outbreak before it even had a name. It’s about people responding to this unfolding disaster and the battle that they had to be taken seriously. Which actually in the light of Covid is even more powerful, because we see what can happen when everything is thrown into it, a vaccine can be found.

“But in the early days of AIDS there was no money given to research, there was no real money given to communication tools, to support sick people – especially in New York City where it was far worse than anywhere else. That has resonances, particularly in historical terms of how people change things, how institutionalised homophobia played out and plays out, fear… there’s a lot in it that feels resonant. Not just specifically for our time, but in general about how we change the world.”

It sounds like a really interesting show, but why London, and why now? “When it was first done it was presented and seen as a piece of urgent reportage from the battlefront, rather than a very ambitious play,” says Dominic. “It’s about the sort of personalities that make change, and the risk of actually making yourself vulnerable to intimacy, and those are universal subjects and I’ve always felt the play is bigger than it was thought of at the time.

“So many young people are politicised today and interested in activism, and this play really shows the challenge and the struggle of engaging with a society that doesn’t want to listen. I think that the nature of activism, making people listen, how people demand change is really in the heart of the play, it’s such a topical thing. Apart from, obviously, the denial that goes with responding to an unknown illness, there are certain things in it which are just extraordinary. There’s a lot about conspiracy theories and the ways that we try to create narratives about things that we don’t understand: how we so often try and fill in the gaps with made up stuff when we don’t have information.”

“I think it’s really important now for a couple of reasons,” says Dino. “There’s a whole generation now who are less familiar with what happened in the ‘80s, the strife that we went through as a community. I think it’s really important in terms of educating people on what happened, but also it’s really important because it’s a reminder of the strength of human spirit – in the ‘80s we were met by so many barriers, so many walls, and there was so little help. Individuals came together and implemented real and lasting change, it’s an important reminder of what we can actually achieve.

There’s a whole generation now who are less familiar with what happened in the ‘80s, the strife that we went through as a community.

“There are so many parallels with Covid and HIV, obviously they’re very different, but the divisiveness of these pandemics, there’s lots of fear, it’s a terrifying set of circumstances to be in. As history shows this kind of fear and divisiveness just leads to more death – it doesn’t solve anything. It’s just really important for everyone to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants – we lost generations of people because of the inactivity and slow response and refusal of help from Governments across the world. When we do work together, things get a lot better, a lot quicker.”

In the show, Ben is playing the role of Ned Weeks, who is based on Larry Kramer. “He is quite an angry man, and he gets shit done – I mean he changed the world, Larry Kramer! In his AIDS fights with everyone from the mayor to the government to the medical people, he moved stuff on. He’s an activist but he doesn’t start off as one, he gets given this job by a doctor to go out and speak to the gay community which he doesn’t really want to do. And he learns and grows with that and at the same time he falls in love and really it’s about the transformative power of love.”

Dino has the role of Ned’s love interest in the show. “I play Felix Turner who’s quite a suave New York Times fashion reporter who deals with society parties, and I come into the play because Ned Weeks seeks me out and basically tries to enlist me to write something about this growing disease in NYC in the Times. At the time we meet, there had only been one article and the numbers were growing at a rapid pace. So he meets me and tries to engage with me and persuade we to write in the Times, but it being a very homophobic institution it’s not something that I can do. However, there’s a bit of a spark! Then Ned and I begin a romantic journey together.”

This is a play that focuses on a crisis that disproportionately affected gay men, and we’re thrilled to see so many queer creatives involved in putting this production together. Is it important to Dominic, Ben and Dino that gay actors are cast to tell these stories?

“Yes and no,” answers Dominic, diplomatically. “I think it’s always important to have people who have experienced something, or have a personal connection with it, involved. And if that is a minority, you have a responsibility to try and find people from a group to play that role. I feel like sometimes you can’t find the right person, so you have to widen out, but generally I think it is important.”

“I do think it’s important,” says Ben. “I don’t think gay actors are allowed to reach a level whereby we can play all parts. There was a film that came out recently with Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, Supernova, and instantly I was like ‘why no gay actors?’ I mean they’re fantastic actors, I’ve worked with both of them. I just thought – we’re not allowed to reach that level. Colin Firth can leave drama school and play Darcy, but if you leave drama school as an overtly gay young actor, you don’t get cast as Darcy. I can’t go up for James Bond, there’s an inequality there.

“There is an awareness of it now, and I think over the next few years it will change. But I do think it’s important because a lot of the time there are people who are identifiably gay, and they are edited out of dramas a lot of the time. And I think it’s important for everyone to be visible. I feel that I can’t really complain because I do work a lot! But I know I’ve lost parts because I have been an openly gay actor.”

“It’s a really difficult question and it’s one I’d answer very differently in the past,” says Dino. “It’s been a big conversation and now I do think it’s a very important thing that we really strive for that. Especially now where we’re at a point in the industry where things are changing, when diversity and an awareness around these things is heightened. I’m thrilled that this cast is so predominantly queer and so diverse. I wouldn’t want to see a world where we say ‘only a gay person can play a gay role’, but I do think it’s important to try, especially in stories like this because it’s about our history, something very deeply rooted in our psyche.”

It sounds like it’s shaping up to be a really significant queer theatre event, on a similar scale to The Inheritance or Angels In America, and one readers will undoubtedly want to see. “I think GAY TIMES readers, if you’re gay, queer, or under any letter of the LGBTQI+ banner, I think it’s really important to come and learn about our history,” says Dino. “We take so many things for granted now: it’s very easy for me in London, I can freely walk down the street and hold my partner’s hand, my friends who have HIV take medication and live a completely healthy long life. But all of these things are a result of people before us who had to fight tooth and nail and claw through these barriers, through indescribable amounts of shame, to bring us to where we are.

“You can get on a plane and you can go somewhere a few hours away, you can go to Russia and see what the world’s like there, where you have no rights and you live in fear. We always need to grateful and aware that it’s a liberty that we’ve earned and that we need to hold on to. That’s why things like gay pride are so important – it really pisses me off when people are like “why do you need gay pride, you can get married!” – stuff like that. Until school boys aren’t killing themselves for being gay, we need pride. Until everyone can walk down the street and be who they are, happily and freely, we need pride. And I think it’s an important play to remember where we’ve come from.”

“I think it’s a really rich piece, and I think I would want any young gay person, or any LGBTQ+ person, or any person in any minority who is struggling with their position in the world, to see this play because it gives you a chance to see what your voice can do,” says Ben. “And you should never ever silence that voice, because that voice can move mountains. I think it’s a really inspirational, beautiful piece of writing, and it’s a cracking love story too, it’s really moving.”

“It’s part of the history of gay people, this play,” says Dominic. “It’s a history of a really key moment in LGBTQ+ life. It’s mainly concerned with gay men, but it is about how we’re seen, how the straight world responds to us. Some of the things that are said in the play are still very relevant. The frontiers are different now but many of the problems are still the same problems. I think that sometimes there’s a feeling of complacency, that annoys me – not amongst the community but in the rest of the world, certain LGBTQ+ issues have moved down the league table of what seems to matter. Obviously there’s a lot of concern about trans rights, quite rightly in my view, but in terms of lesbian and gay people and their situation – a lot of people feel like that’s fine now, and I do not feel that at all, there are still huge issues to solve.

The level of closeted-ness and fear about sexuality in that world is an example of the fact that we have still got a lot of work to do.

“I think we’ll always be fighting because we’re in a minority, we’ll always be struggling to make sure that we’ll be treated equally and there will be pushbacks along the way. Look at sport, it’s astonishing that people are not out in sport. The level of closeted-ness and fear about sexuality in that world is an example of the fact that we have still got a lot of work to do. There have been great advances, there’s no question, but we’re still very vulnerable, and people are still attacked for being queer and are still discriminated against.”

We’re excited to see such a culturally significant show as The Normal Heart playing on one of the most renowned stages in the world – and for Dino this is his first appearance at the National Theatre. How does he feel making his debut playing an overtly gay role on a platform like this?

“It’s really interesting because at the beginning of my career, I was very scared of gay roles, there was this kind of underlying tension around it, this ‘be careful, don’t play gay roles, you’ll be pigeonholed’. I remember when I was cast in Cucumber and Banana I was obviously thrilled, but I did have a conversation with Russell [T Davies] about it and he just said to me – ‘you can do whatever you want, it’s your path, it’s your story, but you just have to remember that you have to look at yourself every day in the mirror’ and that really rang true with me. I want to be true to myself and if I’m avoiding the topic, what does that say? To me that says I’m ashamed.

“The more my career’s progressed, where I was back then to now, I relish playing gay roles. I’ve played an array of roles, from gay, straight, biomechanical in Humans! Now when I get a gay role I don’t think ‘oh no a gay role, they’re just gonna cast me cos I’m gay’ because you know what, I’m a really proud gay person. I get to tell those stories, I’ve had letters from fans who say that being able to see me as an openly gay person who’s proud and plays those roles is really inspiring to them, and that means so much. I just fucking love our community! Look at what we did in the ‘80s, incredible. Gay people are awesome, we’ve done some of the most amazing feats in history. And so to be able to be a part of that crew, and stand on these huge platforms, and inhabit these roles, it brings me so much joy.”

The Normal Heart opens at The National Theatre on 30 September, with previews from 23 September. More information can be found here.