Tony Kushner combines realism and the supernatural in his gay fantasia about community, identity and migration in the late 20th century. Consisting of two parts that add up to approximately eight hours running time, Angels in America has the scope of a great American novel. It is intensely political whilst focusing on the effect of AIDS on the gay community in the 1980s and the passivity of society and the political forces. Reagan only acknowledged the severity of the epidemic when his long-time friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS.
Originally commissioned by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, the play’s first part, Millennium Approaches was first performed in Los Angeles as a workshop in May 1990 before it received its world premiere in San Francisco. In London it premiered in a National Theatre production at the Cottesloe Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan. Opening on 23 January 1992, the London production ran for a year. The play’s second part, Perestroika, was still being developed as Millennium Approaches was being performed and received its world premiere in November 1992 in a production by the Mark Taper Forum. In November 1993 it received its London debut at the National Theatre, in repertory with a revival of Millennium Approaches, again directed by Declan Donnellan.
Marianne Elliott‘s powerful and imaginative production brings this epic drama back to the National Theatre for the first time in 25 years. Featuring an excellent cast led by Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, the entire run of the play has been sold out for months.
The play begins with a memorial service. A Jewish woman has died. An immigrant “who came to a melting pot where nothing melted”. The rabbi (Susan Brown) fears that soon all the old will be dead and their knowledge will be lost because their descendants assimilate, leaving behind the old ways. Yet people will not stand still, they are always moving and looking for change.
Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) knows that he will die of AIDS. His boyfriend Louis (James McArdle), a filing clerk at the courthouse, is unable to cope with the news. He rushes off to attend his grandmother’s funeral without providing any comfort for the desperate Prior. Louis knows that he will desert his friend and is guilt-ridden. Whilst crying in the courthouse copy-room, he meets Joe (Russell Tovey), a Mormon lawyer who won’t admit to his own homosexuality although his ambivalent behaviour alienates his wife Harper (Denise Gough) who fights her severe depression with generous doses of Valium that lead to rather fascinating hallucinations. Joe’s mentor is the malicious figure of Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), once the right-hand man of Joseph McCarthy, a homophobe and “commie hater” who is proud of having sent Ethel Rosenberg to the chair. Ironically, Roy Cohn is now dying of AIDS himself although he denies being gay. When informed of his disease, he immediately threatens his doctor – Cohn is not gay because he is powerful and homosexuals are weak. He is a straight male who chooses to have sex with men. Once he is sent to hospital, his official diagnosis is “liver cancer”. Interestingly enough, the unscrupulous Cohn was Donald Trump’s lawyer which lends an unsettling topicality to the play.
Although the subject matter is very dark, there is a savage humour in Kushner’s work, much of it provided by the outrageous character Roy Cohn who will even treat his own death as a joke. Another remarkable and humorous scene occurs as the forlorn Harper seeks refuge at the Mormon Visitor Center and she meets Prior. As they are sitting in front of a Mormon diorama, the pioneer father dummy miraculously turns into Joe. Yet there are also tender, heartfelt moments, for example when Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a kind-hearted nurse and the most sympathetic character in the play, convinces Louis to say Kaddish for the deceased Roy Cohn, the “pole star of evil”.
Tony Kushner did not write a naturalistic play. Strongly influenced by Brecht, he preferred that the theatricality of the play be transparent. Director Marianne Elliott keeps her production pared down with minimal scenery and rapid scene changes, thanks to the revolving stage in the Lyttelton Theatre and the cast who, along with the stage hands, help moving the props. Each of the main actors also plays at least one other minor role in the play, at times cross-gender. Elliott easily switches from the realism of Millennium Approaches to the more fantastic second part. When Elliott’s angel appears, she resembles a mythical creature out of the Greek or Roman world. More harpy than beatific angel, Amanda Lawrence‘s Angel represents the Bald Eagle of America. She is surrounded by her angel-shadows, dark puppeteers resembling demons, who move her gigantic wings.
The cast are brilliant. Andrew Garfield inhabits his character Prior Walter who shows incredible bravery in the face of his devastating illness. Although Garfield’s performance is unsentimental, he evokes sympathy and admiration. Nathan Lane just explodes across the stage as the hyper-energetic charismatic Cohn. James McArdle convinces as the guilt-ridden Louis who fails his partner when he is needed the most – an act that cannot be forgiven. Russell Tovey impresses as the conflicted Mormon Republican lawyer who tries to fight his sexuality. Denise Gough plays Harper as an injured being who manages to gather enough strength to escape her marital prison.
An excellent production that should not be missed. 5/5
Review written by Carolin Kopplin.
Angels in America is currently showing at the National Theatre until 19th August 2017. For more information on the production, visit here…
The entire run is sold out, returns only. For £20 tickets, enter the ballot here…
Running time of Part One – Millennium Approaches: 3 hours 30 minutes with two 15-minute intervals
Running time of Part Two – Perestroika: 4 hours with two 15-minute intervals
Angels in America will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK and internationally via NT Live; Part One on 20 July and Part Two on 27 July ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk