Dino Fetscher on THE NORMAL HEART at the National Theatre
Writer and activist Susan Sontag once famously referred to Larry Kramer as "one of America's most valuable troublemakers."
Kramer wasn't in the business of ingratiating himself to anyone. He once referred to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci as a killer and "incompetent idiot" in an open letter to the San Francisco Examiner in 1988.
That outburst led them working together on research that would see the development of new drug programmes that could prolong the lives of those infected with HIV. Fauci later went on to support Kramer in getting involved in a lifesaving drug trial following a liver transplant. Kramer knew that to get what was needed, the path forward would not be comfortable.
In 1985, Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart premiered Off-Broadway, and subsequently played at London's Royal Court. This year sees a significant revival at the National Theatre directed by Dominic Cooke and starring Ben Daniels in the Krameresque autobiographical role of activist and writer Ned Weeks and Dino Fetscher as Weeks's lover, Felix Turner.
On reflecting upon the reopening of theatres and bringing an iconic play to an iconic building, Fetscher is in no doubt about the timing. "It's such an important piece of work and to be part of it on such a prolific, wonderful stage - it's why I do my job. This job has the ability to implement change and to start conversations and make people think and educate and to remember."
Although The Normal Heart is autobiographical, with Kramer having identified a number of people, both living and dead, and who they correspond to in the play, the origin of Fetscher's character Felix Turner remains unknown - with the assumption that it is an amalgamation of people.
"For me, he represents the potential of all of these people that we love, the generations of these promising young lives which were taken from us," Fetscher continues. "They were taken from us by the failings of the government. We weren't able to give these people the correct attention, the media focus. Felix is very much a big part of the emotional heart of the play and he represents the human beings behind the statistics of all the people who died. He represents the stories behind the suffering but also the courage to love, the hope, resilience and strength of these wonderful people."
So much has changed since the early 1980s, not least in the way the gay community are supported and represented. As well as being a piece of political activism that comes from the heart of Larry Kramer's experiences, it is also a piece of historical drama.
"I think it's important to remember that it was a time when we didn't have any rights, where it was so scary but these amazing people, Larry Kramer and these incredible heroes came together and they made themselves be heard," points out Fetscher. "They actually implemented incredible change."
The incredible change that came about as a result of Kramer's activism included the creation of Gay Men's Health Crisis, an institution that assisted and cared for people living with AIDS. Fetscher is in no doubt about the importance of this landmark organisation. "It was one of the most effective acts of political activism in history. It got the drugs. It changed laws. It forced governments to listen. I think there's a really important message for us to remember [about] our work and the power that we have as individuals and what we can actually do if we come together. Sometimes I think in this day and age there is a sense of apathy."
It was the apathy of the gay community that led to Kramer writing The Normal Heart - which also saw the severing of ties between GMHC and Kramer.
"The courage that it took was incredible because Larry was so unpopular," says Fetscher. "He was hated. He was confronted in the streets. People tried to hit him. But without him, who knows how long it would have taken to make the changes he made. Now people with HIV can lead normal and healthy lives."
The National Theatre's revival of The Normal Heart is also significant since there are now generations who may not be familiar with the prejudice, stigma and fear that ran alongside the first reports of AIDS. "Whilst this play doesn't necessarily have a happy ending and there are lots of tough moments, I hope people come away with more hope in humanity, with a bit more belief in the human spirt and what we can actually achieve," says Fetscher.
"For audiences who don't know what happened, I hope they come away with a little more perspective of where we've come from. I didn't have any queer history in school. I didn't learn anything about what we as a community have gone through, and it is absolutely amazing what we have achieved."
At the centre of the activism and provocations of The Normal Heart is a love story. "It's a call to arms, a wake-up call, but what I've discovered about this play, especially since playing Felix, is just how much of the play is about love and the tenacity of love and hope."
Fetscher continues: "It's a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are who we are today because of all the people who came before us, real people. People who were ignored. They were turned away from hospitals and had to go into abandoned buildings because the whole of society has rejected them."
After 18 months of dark theatres and isolation, it feels particularly powerful that The National Theatre is staging this major revival of The Normal Heart. Kramer passed away in 2020 so he won't be there in person handing out letters to the audience like he did for the 2011 Broadway revival, but his voice and spirit will be very much in attendance - and it is the voice of Kramer that Fetscher holds dear for both his performance and this production.
"Sometimes because something is scary and you might be unpopular doesn't mean it's the wrong decision. Trusting our moral compass and not letting go of our voice acts as a reminder that we ultimately do have the power to implement change."
The Normal Heart runs at the National Theatre from 23 September to 6 November
Originally published on Broadway World.