An almost chemical precision is required to achieve truly magical theatre.
I’m not talking about special effects or tricks or whatever "magic" might be peddled in some over-financed Disney on-stage branding exercise, no. I’m talking about the sheer majesty of bearing witness to exceptionally talented actors tearing into some of the most empathetically- and intellectually-charged writing of all time, all under the guidance of an assured director working in peak form.
Such are the pleasures of the National Theatre Live’s latest presentation, ‘Angels in America: Part Two – Perestroika’.
Though often considered the messier, less satisfying half of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, it is irrefutable that it is here in ‘Perestroika’ that this particular production takes flight. After the impressive but not quite spectacular staging of ‘Millennium Approaches’, director Marianne Elliot’s clearly structured approach to the text finally pays off, as sets, scenes and performances at long last explode and bleed into each other, achieving a beautiful ode to the power of Kushner’s words.
At this point, if you’re still as yet unfamiliar with the stories being told in ‘Angels in America’, this may not be the review for you. Continuing on the intercutting between now-estranged gay couple Prior (Andrew Garfield) and Louis (James McArdle) and, well, now-estranged Mormon couple Harper (Denise Gough) and Joe (Russell Tovey), as well as Republican demon Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), ‘Perestroika’ also brings into the mix a more significant presence for three characters in particular. There’s Joe’s unfriendly yet kind mother, Hannah (Susan Brown); African-American nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who is forced to care for the dying Roy; and let’s not forget the genuine Angel (Amanda Lawrence) that crashed into Prior’s apartment in the final moments of Part One. Through these intertwining stories, Kushner and Elliot tease out even more foibles and fallacies in this sublime cast of characters, and they are gifted with an ensemble that is supremely up to the task.
Firstly, satisfyingly coming into its own in this second half is the show’s design, finally breaking free of the unimaginatively sequestered visual compositions of ‘Millennium Approaches’. While it still may not quite match the text in bravado and revolution, at least we get some actual creativity and stylish flourishes – not least of which is the impressively original manner in which they achieve the physicality of the Angel. Using puppetry and multiple moving bodies for a refreshingly grounded realisation of the character, while still conveying the grimy and chintzy wonder the play requires. Equally playful is the show’s concept of Heaven, described in the play as “much like San Francisco”, but here taking the form of a literal extension of a very famous quote from another play – if all the world’s a stage, then here the afterlife is a group of stage managers waiting in the wings.
However, the most impressive leap in quality comes in the performances, which were already so fantastically strong in the first part. Denise Gough and Nathan Lane, each the standouts of Part One, continue to wow with their soul-shredding performances. Particularly Gough, who finds new, harsher levels than are typically expected of Harper, becoming an even more ungainly, out-of-place presence in a world she only very gradually embraces. Her tremulous yet hard, probing vocals are the most purely pleasurable in the show, because this is an actor that has such an innate, astounding understanding of her character. She lands every sardonic quip, every emotional flourish, every verbose act of self-protection and self-laceration. She’s a force of nature, and the exact same can be said of Lane. But, the real revelation of ‘Perestroika’ is Andrew Garfield.
Sets, scenes and performances at long-last explode and bleed into each other, achieving a beautiful ode to the power of Kushner’s words.
Where in ‘Millennium Approaches’ he came off as overly melodramatic and lacking in nuance, here something comes alive in Garfield’s performance. He brings a wounded, energetic forcefulness to Prior’s plight, but this time nails the comic beats that are so necessary to the character’s overall arc. And when it comes time to deliver the series of gargantuan scenes that bring Prior’s story to a close (something that I was very concerned about after his performance in Part One), Garfield kills, nailing the terrified conviction of a man wrestling with his humanity and mortality.
At this point it must also be said that the presentation itself is quietly staggering, as the performance is captured so intimately and unobtrusively that you really are transported into the theatre (as pat as that may sound). The immediacy is breathtaking, as every glob of spit and bead of sweat is captured in all its glory, bringing you right up close and personal with these fantastic performances.
At the end of the day though, just like in their presentation of the play’s first half, it’s the text that shines brightest in this impressive production. Within these four hours of blistering entertainment lies some of the most perfect scenes in playwriting history, as showdowns between certain pairings devastate with their command of language and of character. Belize in particular gets some of the most fantastically cutting lines, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett does not disappoint in his furious delivery of them.
Ultimately, this is an incredibly worthwhile production of one of the most spectacular plays of modern times. And as it comes into these specific times in particular, its power, humour and heart – and especially its blistering rage – are a righteously empowering salve for the soul.
Now that's real magic.