A four hour rehersal observed by Olivia KhattarJennifer Chen with permission for Varsity

“I belong to a culture,” begins Ned Weeks, activist, founder of an HIV advocacy group and the protagonist of Larry Kramer’s seminal A Normal Heart, a play written at the onset of a then-unknown disease, seeming to target a specific group: gay men. Weeks continues: “I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great […] These are not invisible men.

True, the works of these men may indeed be familiar to us, perhaps precipitating dinner-table discussions and classroom debates, or assigned readings and supervision essays. But it was the identities of these men, as gay, which were too often made “invisible”, forced to be concealed, redacted from our history lessons and textbooks. Such identities were only brought into the spotlight, in the landscape which The Normal Heart navigates, as the deemed ‘superspreaders’ of a mysterious, new disease – one that we today know as AIDS.

Within moments of sitting down with Director Alex Velody, Assistant Director Joe Short, and Producer Barash Tunahan, it is clear that this team are unapologetically committed to platforming those queer identities which have too often been obscured. This searing drama will take to the ADC stage next week, fittingly marking the beginning of LGBTQIA+ history month. But Barash tells me that this production celebrates a queer culture that is not exclusively about big names. For him and for the rest of the team, “it’s also about those normal people.”

“It is clear that this team are unapologetically committed to platforming those queer identities”

It is the research of these “normal people” – the real-life counterparts to the characters of Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play – that punctuates the team’s creative process. Alex tells me that it was never going to be a case of sending his cast off over the holidays and asking them to return ‘off-book’ before diving into rehearsals. Rather, before any rehearsing, the team dedicated themselves to two full days of table-work. They shared a vast amount of research, culminating in a colourful tapestry of queer stories, queer histories and queer lives. Such research comprises the very soul of this production, shaping it as, “not so much a play about history, but one that is itself, history”, as Alex puts it.

“Before any rehearsing began, the team dedicated themselves to two full days of table-work”

Forty minutes into Alex and Joe’s rehearsal and a sensitive yet energised conversation still dominates before the script is even considered. There exists no sense of rush, but equally, no feeling of stagnation. Here, all voices are paid equal homage, carefully infused into the scene at hand. And as scene work begins, the fruits of such a considered creative approach are unsurprisingly reaped. The two actors – Rafael Griso Dryer and Eddie Adams, playing brothers Ned and Ben Weeks – show resounding care for Kramer’s writing, writing which is as much poetry as it is polemic. They allow prior conversations to truly animate their performances, rather than attempting any recreation of their characters’ real-life counterparts.

“There exists no sense of rush in this rehearsal room, but equally, no feeling of stagnation”

Joe, noticing how I have been glued to my seat for quite some time now, politely reminds me that as much as I would be welcome, I really do not have to stay for the whole four-hour rehearsal. But in a room wherein it is genuinely hard to believe that these are student creatives at work rather than professionals, I feel that to stay would be a luxury. I am not at all surprised when Barash tells me that he regularly attends rehearsals and is himself deeply involved with the creative process, an element of the ‘producer’ role which is sadly a rarity within the cosmos of Cambridge Theatre (as Gina Stock explores in ’Behind the Curtain: Cambridge Producers).

While attention to queer histories remains firmly at the heart of this production, this team are creating something which cannot solely be categorised as ‘historical drama’. Joe explains, “it wasn’t written to be timeless, or a classic, but for the necessity of activism at the time. I think it’s that necessity which then gives the play the timelessness it so clearly has.” Joe’s explanation resonated; a fable about normal, human people forced to act is such a universal thing, tangibly so in our current climate. For Alex and his team, staging The Normal Heart in 2024 is about bringing AIDS and “that lineage of queer people who we are standing on the shoulders of, but who are completely concealed”, into the conversation so that we can understand how far we have come, but crucially, the work we have yet to complete.

Such a sentiment is shared by the leading UK charity for HIV and sexual health, Terrence Higgins Trust, the charity to whom this team are donating 100% of their profits and 10% of all ticket proceeds. Alex and his team are clearly determined to help the charity in their mission to eradicate HIV in the UK by 2030, seeing their production as “entirely inseparable from the charity element.”

“We can not only understand how far we have come, but crucially, the work we have yet to complete”

With charitable efforts at the production’s core, paired with a rehearsal room punctuated with warm glances and sensitive conversation, I soon realised what the binding essence of such a play is. To echo the foreword by the play’s original off-Broadway producer, Joseph Papp, the essence of this extraordinary production “is love – love holding firm under fire.”


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And love is, indeed, the absolute binding essence in the creative space behind The Normal Heart. It is the power behind this production, which has allowed this team to create a culture of their own – a culture that you too, like Weeks, can feel you “belong” to when you enter the ADC next week.

The Normal Heart is showing at the ADC Theatre from Tuesday 30th January to Saturday 3rd February.