To say the National Theatre’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America has been hotly anticipated, is an understatement. It was an instant sell out and boasts a heavy weight, award winning team. The play is divided into two parts – The Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. So, does the 7-hour double bill live up to the hype? In a word, absolutely.
Set amid Reagan’s eighties America, Kushner’s epic follows two couples separating in raw detail: a gay man leaves his partner on discovering he has AIDs and a Mormon couple splits when the husband realises he is gay. The play tracks the couples and a series of interlinked characters who are all struggling to make sense of life’s blows and the failings of those they care for. Kushner refuses to shy away from some of the uglier traits of humanity: selfishness, desire, abandonment, and greed.
Marianne Elliott’s perfectly orchestrated production spirals through the progressive symptoms of AIDs into a land of gay fantasia. Elliott controls the frequently changing tone with a master touch, with many scenes switching from heart rending tragedy to dead pan comedy in seconds.
Interestingly, for a production of this scale, Angels is playing in the Lyttleton rather than the larger Olivier. Ian MacNeil’s deconstructed set makes the most of this, combining the intimate and the epic via a selection of half built rooms, offices, and wards which slide on and off as the plays progress, revealing an almost bare, black space. It mirrors the Angel’s proclamation about the deterioration of humanity and Prior succumbing to his illness, with the set deconstructing and constantly being torn down and replaced with something new. Interestingly, it is the Angel that demands stasis from Prior and, in turn, humanity; but the set, like Prior, persistently keeps shifting and changing. Significantly, in part two the ensemble, dressed in tight costumes reminiscent of diseased flesh, physically move the fragments of set around, resembling the disease running through the veins of the play as in characters like Prior and Roy.
as natural and frankly ethereal as could possibly be imagined
The set is striking, clever, and effective and works in tandem with Paule Constable’s stark but powerful lighting. The lighting and special effects highlight the blurred but inextricable link between what is real in the world of Angels and what is not. Much of the play is set in hallucinations, dream like states or, in Part II, the afterlife. Harper and Prior drift swiftly between such dimensions and the shifts are seamless. Transitions from reality into other states are, may I say, as natural and frankly ethereal as could possibly be imagined. For example, in one of her many vivid hallucinations, Harper wanders through the Antarctic. Done purely through flusters of snow, bright lilac lighting, and a stripped-down set – the transition feels intimate, convincing, and magical.
With such a star-studied cast, it is impossible to single out one stand out performance as each of the eight actors excel in their roles – all playing several parts, sometimes of different genders, and often in quick succession. Andrew Garfield (best known as Spiderman and who was recently nominated for an Oscar) plays Prior Walter. Garfield proves himself to be just as impressive and natural on stage as he is on screen, with a blood-churningly convincing performance. He is totally mesmerising and relentless in his passion, energy, and elegance. Denise Gough is equally impressive in her Valium-induced monologues and plays her other-worldly scenes to perfection. Russell Tovey is a revelation as her husband, a straight (pardon the pun), closeted, Mormon lawyer who comes out as gay. Tovey expertly conveys the under-current of confusion and passion culminating in an explosive admission of his sexuality. He literally strips down as he emotionally opens up to Louis in Part II. James McArdle’s Louis vacillates between grieving guilt and comic justification for his actions. I’ve rarely seen an actor cry so convincingly and frequently on stage, although thankfully he combined it with the same magnificent comic timing he displayed as Platonov last year in the Young Chekhov season.
a dazzling whirlwind of emotion
The play has been described as a period piece of the 80’s; the attitudes towards the gay community are very different in 2017, medical advances have made HIV/AIDs more manageable, and we now know that climate change is real. However, the production feels remarkably relevant in its message and nowhere more so than in the character of Roy Cohn. Nathan Lane plays this real- life attorney, known for the McCarthy hearings, manipulating bad press in his favour and critically for being the mentor of Donald Trump. He gives an outstanding performance starting with his comic opening monologue juggling phone calls (and tickets for Cats the Musical), then expertly switching to anger and denial as he graphically declines from an AIDs related illness. I have never seen such a universally strong cast, so feel remiss in not mentioning Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s feisty gay AIDs nurse, Susan Brown’s form in five key roles and finally Amanda Lawrence’s compelling, epic Angel.
I was completely enthralled by this production. You couldn’t take your eyes off of the stage even if you wanted to. It is a dazzling whirlwind of emotion: you are totally and utterly swept up into the quirky but devastating world of Angels. Myself and the rest of the audience left the theatre both emotionally and mentally exhausted after 7 hours of tears and laughter. The significant questions raised by Kushner throughout have stayed with me and, in turn, given me a lot of cause for thought. If you get the chance, queuing at dawn for a ticket will definitely be worth it.
Angels in America is playing the the National Theatre until 19th August, details and booking information here.
Image: Helen Maybanks