Emily Garside takes a look at the National Theatre’s revival of one of the giants of the Amercian canon, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The announcement that Angels in America would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle (‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’) might suggest. The play in fact received its world premiere at the National Theatre in 1994, where by a quirk of logistical fate put it ahead of its Broadway counterpart. It was a hit in the smaller Cottesloe Space, and earned theatrical accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the most important and memorable pieces of new work the National has staged, it was no surprise it was included in their 50th Anniversary celebrations, or that Rufus Norris has chosen to revisit the play in his second year in charge of the theatre. This time including a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier Award-winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming then a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this, however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself.
The epic two-parter is described by its author Tony Kushner as about ‘AIDS, America and Mormons’, and it is not just about AIDS, Religion and Gay identity, but the sprawling mass of American politics and history. The play was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts which compelled Kushner in some respects to make it his ‘state of the Nation address’. Meanwhile, the play still finds time for an analysis of history and philosophy, coupled with often surreal and always fantastical flights into alternative realities. Crafted in the style of ‘Brechtian Epic’ theatre, the plays do not shy away from big set pieces and big ideas that still feel pertinent today. From Louis setting out his stall on the state of America, race and politics – and being challenged to think outside his leftist liberal bubble – today sounding like they might have been lifted from a well-meaning but misguided blog post and resulting comments section.
Kushner uses the embodiment of real-life figures Roy Cohn (Donald Trump’s old mentor) and Ethel Rosenberg, to look back on American history as well as the limits of forgiveness and tolerance in us as people. All while also having the audacity to appear to answer the question of What is Heaven? And indeed, Who is God? It is grand, far reaching stuff.
Divided into Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, the play follows Prior Walter, gay man, and newly diagnosed with AIDS, and his boyfriend Louis. Parallel to them, Joe Pitt and his wife Harper struggle with their own relationship issues and Harper’s Valium addiction. Meanwhile Joe, a Clerk of the Chief Justice, is being courted by Roy Cohn, based on the real-life lawyer who worked for McCarthy and Trump, and died of AIDS denying his sexuality to the end. Roy and Joe’s father/son relationship, with undertones of both the sexual and sinister confuses the already conflicted Joe further, as does his encounters with Louis. As part 1 catapults towards conclusion in this fast-paced production, Louis has left Prior and convinces Joe to give in to his impulses and come home with him, while Harper wanders lost in the park and in her delusions. Prior, left alone, has had visions, which come to a head in as he says, Spielbergian style with an Angelic visitation.
Kushner’s was one of a wide variety of theatrical works to tackle AIDS in the 1990s, but it was the production with highest profile. His depiction of AIDS in the earliest years of the epidemic is brutal in both its depiction of characters succumbing to illness, but also in the treatment of the wider impact on the lives of those affected by AIDS in the broader sense. He also addresses issues of what it meant to be a gay man in the 1980s across the spectrum; from Louis and Prior’s unapologetic openness to his closeted characters, Joe and Roy. Charm and humour come to Lane easily, and his early scenes as the bullish Cohn at the top of his game are delivered with the kind of impeccable comic timing you’d expect. However, beneath the surface there’s a darkness that is terrifying even in these moments, it’s a balance that Lane wears well in Millennium and by the time he is seen suffering and dying in Perestroika his darkness as a character is clear. This balances well when, as the audience sees him succumb to the disease, we ask how we divide our sympathy differently for this truly unsympathetic character. Elsewhere, with Joe, Kushner gives us the young man finally coming to terms with his sexuality, but ultimately the sympathies here lean towards his wife Harper. Denise Gough never plays Harper as weak, or as victim, and sometimes sympathies shift to Joe, a puppy-like Russell Tovey, battling his own demons of sexuality while trying to still be a good man and ultimately good husband.
Millennium is a naturalistic affair, and is staged as such, often with jarring realism as Roy and Prior succumb to their illness. The stage consists of three main revolves, which at the start separate out into Louis and Prior’s areas, Joe and Harper’s with some no man’s land between. As the play progresses, the set is used cleverly to literally ‘revolve’ them into each other’s worlds, until by the split scene towards the end of Act 3, they have completely bled into each other and their spaces. A neat parallel to the staging of this scene also returns at the end of Part 2. The simplistic backdrops offer a variety of rooms that adapt to the range of settings across the play – from apartments to park benches, diners and City Hall. A clue to the scale of Part 2 however is a moment when an entire apartment (Roy’s) emerges from the floor, and the metaphor of Roy emerging – and returning – below is apt.
The real challenge to the audience lies with Prior, the insight into Kushner’s philosophical reflections, but also the heart of the paly as the sympathetic character we watch succumbing to AIDS. The effect of this hinges largely on the performances of Andrew Garfield as Prior and James McArdle as Louis. Garfield quickly proves he is a natural Prior, balancing heart-breaking performance with a razor-sharp wit. McArdle’s understated but powerful performance as Louis is what really lifts this element of the narrative. Much of the story hinges on Prior being abandoned by Louis because of his having AIDS, a brave bold choice in Kushner’s writing at any time, but particularly in 1995 when the gay community was still being decimated by AIDS. There is naturally a drive to depict those in the community as wholly good and caring and point the finger only at government, at homophobia, and pharmaceutical companies. What Kushner’s play is, and why it stands up 25 years on is that it’s a play about people in all their complexities.