Angels In America may be the better known play about the rise of HIV/AIDS, but Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart is probably the earliest, and, according to one reviewer, “the angriest and most heart-wrenching call to action”. The play had its British premiere on 20 March 1986 at the Royal Court, starring Martin Sheen.
Kramer was a co-founder of the organisation Gay Men’s Health Crisis. His play, The Normal Heart, which was first performed at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, is a largely autobiographical account of his time as an AIDS activist in New York during the period 1981-84, and his attempts to make the government of the time wake up to the impending epidemic and do something about it. Equally, his efforts focused on the gay community itself, which he found unwilling to face the risks of unprotected sex and curb promiscuous lifestyles.
In the play Kramer is depicted by the character Ned Weeks – played in the London premiere by Sheen – whose battles against the New York mayor and the authorities of the time are entwined with his love affair with reporter Felix, played by Paul Jesson. Throughout David Hayman’s Royal Court production the audience was bombarded by shocking facts and statistics relating to the rapid rise of HIV/AIDS.
American actor Sheen was well known at the time for his work on stage, television and film; Taxi!, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, Apocalypse Now, Gandhi and Kennedy on screen, and Death Of A Salesman and The Subject Was Roses – for which he was Tony Award-nominated – on Broadway. Since then Sheen has gone on to find even more success with screen credits Medusa’s Child, Catch Me If You Can, Bobby, The Departed and the lead role of President Jed Bartlet in the major television series The West Wing.
After collecting a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Performance of the Year in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Felix in The Normal Heart, Jesson went on to work frequently at the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His other London stage credits include The Graduate at the Gielgud, King Lear at the Almeida, Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse and, most recently, Awake And Sing! at the Almeida.
In addition to Jesson’s win, The Normal Heart was nominated for the Play of the Year and Actor of the Year (for Sheen) at the 1986 Laurence Olivier Awards.