Angels in America, National Theatre *****

Cast Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Set predominantly in New York City, Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ is a powerful and raw exploration of homosexuality and AIDS towards the end of 1985 into 1990. The current production follows an earlier incarnation, also at the National, which began with Part 1 ‘Millennium Approaches’ in January 1992, whilst ‘Perestroika’ was still in development; and subsequently upon its completion, both parts ran in rep at the Cottesloe. On Broadway the play ran through 1993 to the end of 1994, following early workshops in Los Angeles; and with additional revisions made in 1995 and 2010, the piece continued to spread its wings across more of America and Canada, even finding its way to Asia on two occasions. Indeed ‘Angels in America’ is an epic that has collected the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Play, been developed into a Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning mini series, not to mention an opera adaptation which premiered in Paris in 2004. 

The question I found myself asking was could a play written in, and reflecting on such a specific time, culture and socio-political climate still resonate today? Less than an hour of this eight hour spectacle it was apparent to me that Kushner’s work is a timeless classic; an eye-opener for a new generation, a reminder of how far we have come and yet how far there still is to go. I cannot recall to date a piece which forces its audience to consider the world around them from such multiple perspectives; their politics, their principles and their response to a culture either familiar or unfamiliar to them. It’s all too easy to find oneself judging situations and events which unfold, and almost instantly considering how these conversations and events might play out were they closer to home. ‘Angels’ addresses both public societal attitudes and the intimately personal, individual response its audience might have to the themes and challenges of the play. It’s somewhat disturbing to parallel the attitudes of the Reagan era towards the gay community, with the current political situation in the States. It’s sad to consider the extent to which there still needs to be change in attitude all over the world to basic human rights, equality and inclusion. It is clear to see that with knowledge comes understanding, but there is still a need for moving forward with acceptance, love and respect for the LGBT community, and it is this which cements ‘Angels in America’ as a vital piece of theatrical literature, marking the importance of an era, its struggles and successes. It is, I would say, a fitting tribute to those who fought through life with HIV and AIDS at a time before treatment was as advanced as it is now, surrounded by a misguided society who refused to understand.

Cast Photograph: Helen Maybanks

So to this production… 
Marianne Elliott has chosen the Lyttelton Theatre to play host to proceedings this time, allowing for more lavish and extravagant production values than that of the original at what was then the Cottesloe. Ian MacNeil’s set creates a series of frames, corridors and confined spaces in which the character’s stories unfold and unravel; whilst overhead the action is boxed in with what appears to be a mesh of wire imprisons them. The bear witness to abandonment, denial, breakdowns and desperation, and the restrictive nature of the set forces us to focus in on the rich dialogue and emotive performances of this ensemble of extraordinary calibre. We are tossed between the fracturing relationship of Prior, a man of 30 recently diagnosed with AIDS, and his partner Louis; the broken marriage of Joseph and Harper Pitt, and Roy Cohn, one of American’s most successful and aggressive lawyers, and the power in every performance not only makes the lengthy running times seem short but also takes us on an emotional rollercoaster in which we question our own responses at every turn. Andrew Garfield, as Prior, embraces the role of tragic hero, victim and prophet with almost ceaseless energy. His is a journey of extreme highs and lows, and throughout both parts of the piece, he flits effortlessly between intense emotion, dark comedy and complete vulnerability. At this left and right are partner Louis, characterised beautifully by rising star James McArdle; and friend and nurse Belize, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, a stark contrast to the repressed and fearful Louis. Stewart-Jarrett commands with a light, comical and humorous tone, giving just the right amount of sass but avoiding cliché through an extremely harsh undertone which emerges most gloriously in the second part of the play. McArdle as Louis tackles a character impossible to love, but mesmerising in intensity and emotional depth. Whilst his abandonment of Prior is unforgivable, the weakness and fear inherent to the character is gut-wrenching, and the performance is relentless. The nervous energy, tumbling dialogue and fretful tantrums could easily irritate, but McArdle’s performance is as rich in detail as it is wracked with anxiety, and the result is an exhausting, fascinating mess of a man. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Mormon couple Joe and Harper Pitt are crumbling in a one sided, broken marriage. They are victims of religious expectation and mental vulnerability, outstandingly portrayed by Russell Tovey; who balances the professional desperately seeking career progression, with the desperate and frustrated husband, bound by rules obligation and guilt, and Denise Gough, an explosive yet deeply vulnerable wife of child bearing years barely able to care for herself. Her journey through the duration of the play is quite remarkable, and whilst we initially move between sympathy and impatience, by the conclusion her transformation is quite stunning. Completing this ensemble, the magnificent Nathan Lane explodes into the story with such ferocity and vigour that by the end of his journey it’s hard to recognise Cohn as the same man. Those who enjoyed his terrific performance in ‘The Producers’ will be stunned by outpouring of almost every possible mental state imaginable over the course of his journey. His performance seems the like culmination of a life spent collecting experiences and honing craft. 

Nathan Lane Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Returning to concept and design, Paule Constable’s lighting relates closely both to the era and the themes of the play. Secrets are highlighted but hidden, and textures relate closely to the character’s emotional states. However, if I was to acknowledge anything a little frustrating about the production, whilst in concept the lighting is insightful, in practice it does seem at times overly dark and certainly from halfway back in the stalls, prevents some of the more subtle moments being seen. That said, the more extravagant moments are such an invasion of the senses that one can argue that the visual concept is far greater than the lighting alone. Between the intricate set moving between tiny claustrophobic spaces, to vast expanses of space; special effects punctuating at unexpected moments and atmospheric choreography, the world of the play succeeds in drawing us in anyhow. 

One thing is for certain, Marianne Elliott’s epic direction impresses on an aesthetic level, whilst also succeeding in a more primal emotional sense. We feel, we think and we learn, and ‘Angels in America’ remains an iconic piece of American Literature, crucial to the history of both culture and theatre.