State Theatre Company SA artistic director Mitchell Butel is aware that The Normal Heart might push audiences past the point of comfort.

When the work ­– a semi-autobiographical drama by playwright and activist Larry Kramer – premiered in New York in 1985, it attracted a strong reaction from audiences and critics alike, who were struck by the “sheer rage” that seemed to emanate from the stage.

“It’s not the sort of work you put on for the annual Christmas show,” Butel says. “I was very lucky to see the original Australian production in, I think it was 1987… but I don’t think it’s been performed in Australia since the late ’80s.”

This intensity is – in part – what made Butel believe it was the perfect fit for State Theatre’s 2022 program.

Act Up – the gay rights organisation founded by activist and playwright Larry Kramer – organised this 1989 protest in New York against the high cost of the AIDS drug AZT. Photo: AP

“Having works that really provoke and challenge and take audiences on a pretty wild and compelling narrative ride is something we want to do,” he says. “It’s something we’re thrilled that we can do.”

Opening at the end of this month at the Dunstan Playhouse, State Theatre’s rendering of The Normal Heart will be directed by Dean Bryant and will star Butel in the lead role of Ned Weeks.

Following Ned as he urgently tries to rally resources around a disunited queer community, which is being ravaged by an unidentified and deadly illness, the play’s decades-old story is thrown into fresh relief amid the COVID pandemic and health threats such as Monkeypox.

“What is great about the COVID response is the response worldwide has been very immediate and very thorough,” says Butel.

“That didn’t happen with the AIDS crisis because it was perhaps seen as a gay problem… so that was incredibly disheartening for communities suffering – people dying and families suffering.

“The play explores what happens in a crisis where people aren’t responding, and the need for advocacy… how, in order to win the war, they have to often start one.”

While The Normal Heart deals specifically with a harrowing and important period in history, Butel says the work – in the mode of much seminal art – reaches beyond its narrative boundaries to speak to enduring, universal themes.

“It’s incredibly eloquent and smart, but also very funny and witty, and even though it’s about the beginnings of the gay men’s health crisis it’s also a really beautiful love story. Plus, it’s about community, about friendship, and friendships being tested, and different kinds of love… and finding one’s voice.”

Mitchell Butel with fellow cast member Emma Jones during rehearsals for The Normal Heart. Photo: Jessica Zeng

Butel’s role as Ned brings him back to the stage after a hiatus of sorts. The highly-awarded actor has more often been found behind the scenes since taking on the artistic director role at State Theatre Company SA in 2019.

The Normal Heart, which Butel holds up alongside Angels in America as “the other great gay classic American play”, provided more than enough narrative depth to motivate his return to performance. And he is equally enlivened by the prospect of collaborating with the production’s cast and crew, which brings relative newcomers together with several sought-after and established theatre-makers.

“My process is to do as much research and work as I can beforehand, but really to leave myself open to be turned on by the kind of genius of other people in the room,” he told InReview in the lead-up to rehearsals.

“There’s a lot of young queer performers in this production as well, so it’ll be super interesting, I think, in rehearsals to talk about people’s different experiences of being part of the gay community.

“I think responding to AIDS and HIV – as sad and traumatic as it was – it was another kind of flash-point moment for the community… it was a hard journey, but at the same time I’m really grateful that I was in my 20s in the ’90s, so that I could see a community come together and fight together and celebrate together.”

Actors Evan Lever, AJ Pate and Matt Hyde in rehearsals. Photo: Jessica Zeng

He’s also driven by the character of Ned – the kind of complex, powerful lead role that represents a career highlight for many actors. While Butel would have grasped the opportunity to inhabit such a significant character at any point in his acting life, there is a particular potency in taking it on now.

“In my younger years, it was a very homophobic industry. You’d often find yourself curbing parts of your behaviour in casting rooms.

“I’m not the first to say this, but having less to hide about who you are as a human, I think actually feeds into the kind of depth and truth of the work you can convey as an actor.”

It’s been a long and probably unnecessary wait, but – in more ways than one – it seems that, after 35 years, the moment has truly arrived for The Normal Heart in South Australia.

State Theatre Company South Australia’s season of The Normal Heart runs from September 30 until October 15 at the Dunstan Playhouse.

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