What’s left to be said about Tony Kushner’s magnum opus, ‘Angels in America’, that hasn’t already been said?
It’s difficult to write about a work that, for almost thirty years, has been considered one of the great American plays, and which I personally consider to be the greatest play, full stop. Writing at the height of the AIDS crisis, Kushner wrangled into existence an eight-hour treatise on Everything – queer identity, death, immigration, sex, love, Reaganomics, religion, marriage, race: you name it, it’s got it. It takes the pulse of America in one of its most cataclysmic times, and delivers not just a State of the Nation, but so much more – a State of the Human Race. Kushner attacks, probes, questions, delights, and always with an intellectual rigour, not afraid to get heady and cerebral, but never without being wickedly humorous and emotionally devastating at the same time. Yeah, I’m a little bit obsessed.
Tackling this project on the grandest scale since the original Broadway productions in the early nineties (or the thrilling HBO miniseries adaptation of the early 2000s), Marianne Elliot’s spectacular new staging for the National Theatre has been captured for posterity in their National Theatre Live screening series, with ‘Part One: Millennium Approaches’ rolling out first. Though to me, considering the two parts in isolation (‘Part Two: Perestroika’ begins screening next week) boggles the mind, it’s nevertheless a fantastic opportunity to see one of the greatest pieces of writing shine through in an assured, if not transcendent production.
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The play is ostensibly the tale of two overlapping young couples in New York, one gay – AIDS-afflicted Prior (Andrew Garfield) and his terrified and neurotic boyfriend Louis (James McArdle) – and one straight – Mormons Joe (Russell Tovey), a Republican and closeted homosexual, and his pill-addicted and hallucinating wife Harper (Denise Gough). Throw into the mix Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), an African-American nurse and confidant to Prior; Joe’s religious mother Hannah (Susan Brown); an actual Angel (Amanda Lawrence); and maybe the devil himself, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), and you’ve got yourself a series of cascading, heart-stopping interactions that cohere into a modern epic.
Elliot has a strong grip on proceedings, and directs each performer with a light touch, resulting in an impressively strong ensemble across the board. Garfield and Lane are arguably this production's highest-profile calling cards, though they deliver to differing levels of satisfaction. Lane is a beast, giving maybe his most accomplished performance, never shying away from the carnality and brutality of a real-life monster of a man. But, where other interpretations have made him larger than the even the most larger than life of figures, Lane constantly reminds you of the desecrated, horrifying humanness at the heart of this despicable man. He roars and rages, and tears into some of Kushner’s most virtuosic of dialogue with throat-shredding aplomb.
Delivers not just a State of the Nation, but so much more – a State of the Human Race.
Garfield, though a much stronger performer than the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ movies might suggest, doesn’t quite reach the same heights as his cast-mates. Given perhaps one of the most iconic queer roles in history, his dramatic moments shine, but far too often at the expense of the guarded, biting comedy that is so intrinsic to the character. His performance is strong, but never quite becomes as fully rounded as the text demands. Arguably the strongest performance in the cast is Gough as the wounded, self-medicated Harper, who devastates with her wide-eyed, multi-faceted interpretation of the character. Her arc over these first four hours is magnificent to watch, each stage leant earnestness and self-lacerating clarity by Gough, whose voice is just so wonderfully attuned to the rhythms of Kushner’s dialogue.
The design elements, though strong, are where the play suffers in being broken up from its second half in presentation. Clearly structured for a payoff that hasn’t yet come, this first half is designed in confined spaces, three flimsy compartments that separate the characters from each other to interesting, though not yet satisfying effect. You can feel these barriers begin to break down as Part One reaches its conclusion, and hopefully the payoff will be worth it. However, that’s not to say that moments of divine beauty and theatrical wonder don’t take place, as they most certainly do. Elliot and her designer Ian MacNeil (as well as sound designer Ian Dickinson and lighting designer Paule Constable) do indeed craft impressive set pieces, with Harper’s snow-filled Antarctica and the Angel’s last-minute appearance in particular lending a sense of visual splendour to proceedings.
But what really shines through, as always, is Kushner’s text. Thirty years on and it shows no signs of becoming a relic of a bygone era, as much as one might wish it would. This production steps into a political and social climate that might be even more charged than the one it came from, but the play itself is as illuminating and edifying as ever. I can’t wait to see what these artists do with Part Two.