Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches.
4 May 2017
Almost twenty-five years ago I saw the original National theatre production of Angels in America. I wear as a badge of honour the fact that I stood for the whole near eight hours of the show, getting the last but one standing room only ticket in the (then) Cottlesloe theatre. It was a theatrical experience I have never forgotten; neither have my feet and now along comes Marianne Elliott’s majestic production to sear new images on my brain in a wonderful and inspiring evening in the theatre.
It’s hard to avoid the word ‘epic’ when discussing Tony Kushner’s play, the sweep and ambition is still broad and astonishing. Set in New York in 1986, at the height of the terrifying AIDS crisis, when government apathy was leading to deaths of thousands of gay men, Kushner places people with HIV at the heart of his drama. It is important to remember that the subtitle of the work is A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the fantasy elements are audacious, the National themes still powerfully relevant. The play begins with a speech about immigration, and the only character based on a real person is Roy Cohn, the powerful New York lawyer, deeply closeted, a homosexual who died of AIDS who inflicted enormous damage on those whose paths he crossed. He was a mentor of Trump, who was cut off from him when his AIDS diagnosis became public. Now Trump is president, and the play needs no updating. The journey we undertake encompasses Heaven and Hell, health care and fear, squabbling couples, Mormonism, the crumbling ozone layer and homosexuality.
The text is served by an excellent ensemble, there isn’t a weak link. Central to the production is a truly phenomenal performance by Andrew Garfield; he is transformative and unrecognisable in places, completely inhabiting camp, laconic, frightened and totally loveable Prior Walter. He is the main reason out of hundreds why I think you should see this show, he is mesmerising. Nathan Lane is outstanding as Roy Cohn, making the son of a bitch likeable, with bags of charm, and then chilling your blood with his rhetoric, especially in the now famous scene where he tells his Doctor, “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have Liver Cancer.” Passionate, funny, engaging, this is a brave performance against type by an actor of infinite skills. Russell Tovey, his previous work as a man tortured by inner secrets in The Pass and Being Human, uses those skills to perfection as closeted gay Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, beginning his journey to acceptance tentatively with his attraction to self-pitying Louis, another wonderful performance by James McCardle, Prior’s lover who flees the situation when he becomes unable to cope with Prior’s condition. Denise Gough breaks your heart as Harper Pitt, her and Joe’s relationship feeling like the climax of a story right at the beginning of the play.
Scene after scene unfolds with astonishing staging and acting, and the play is hugely funny. In particular, Tovey and Lane have a ball as two of the prior Prior Walters, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is in constant danger of stealing the play as sarcastic, angry and very real Belize, the truth sayer of the piece. In a play of these epic proportions, inevitably some scenes are less effective than others, but no matter, the next will be a master class in bold and inventive writing and staging. I have some minor quibbles, mainly to do with Ian MacNeil’s set, which is, perhaps understandably, more functional than fabulous, and part one contains exterior scenes that feel interior, the actors boxed in- and a lot of the action take place on either stage right or stage left, little in the centre.
But no matter, we await the arrival of the angel, and, as befitting the director of War Horse, when she does arrive, it is a wonderful surprise, not what you expect from the previous staging. “Greetings prophet”, she proclaims, “let the great work begin!” Most of us felt we were already witnessing it, as we headed towards part two of this exceptional work.