Review: Angels in America

Following the success of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway, we revisit Lana Crowe‘s experience of the play’s 2017 revival in London’s National Theatre. 

The National Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America has been one of the most anticipated dramas of the year. Originally performed in the early 1990s, the two plays guide the audience through different stories of sexuality, relationships and AIDS: the bigoted businessman in denial, the absent boyfriend, the fading queen. Though easily boiled down to their respective theatrical archetypes, it is the detail of Tony Kushner’s nuanced and witty script that enabled the audience to engage with the characters across the two plays.

Russell Tovey as conflicted Republican Joe Pitt (Helen Maybanks)

Attending the two-play day was harrowing and rewarding in equal measure. With Millennium Approaches running for three-and-a-half hours, and Perestroika clocking up another four-and-a-quarter, the day’s theatre time totalled almost eight hours: a marathon for even a regular theatre-goer. Granted, the frequent intervals provided much-needed opportunities to use the toilet, top-up drinks and share bewildered glances with fellow audience members. However, despite these bodily allowances, the hard, narrow seats in the stalls of the Lyttelton Theatre ensured that the audience were wriggling around in physical, as well as emotional, discomfort. As an audience, we were forced to do more than witness. We experienced a microcosm of the characters’ toil: their frustrations with the fallibility of the body, the discordance between their autonomous choices and dissatisfaction with reality and consequence. I suspect that the emotional sadism displayed by many of the characters will not have been alien to an audience who chose to enter the National at 1pm and not leave for the night until ten hours later.

The cast were laudable at least, and breathtaking at best. Russell Tovey’s Joe Pitt was a multifaceted portrayal of the friction between being homosexual, Mormon, married and – perhaps most problematically – Republican. Despite his ragdoll physique, Andrew Garfield’s role as Prior Walter was the most physically demanding, and Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn was despicably lovable, drawing the audience into his circle of culpability through many moments of comic relief. Louis Ironson (James McArdle), though in ways the play’s antagonist, was also the most relatable. However, his ignorance of what would now be termed intersectional LGBT+ issues – particularly in one vehement rant against the world to the black, gay nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) – distanced the character from 21st-century liberalism. Stewart-Jarrett’s performance epitomised the virtues of the production: sensitive, humorous, and quietly dedicated to his principles. The doubling of roles was conceptual: Amanda Lawrence’s occasional appearance as a hospital nurse juxtaposed her primary role as the surrealist angel, reinforcing the link between Prior’s illness and his visions, and Susan Brown’s portrayal of the ghostly Ethel Rosenberg made her role as the Mormon mother Hannah Pitt more threatening.

The staging became increasingly elaborate as the audience was drawn further into Prior’s mind, and the drama deteriorated into absurdity. The set had several rotating pieces, windows that opened and closed in accordance with changes in location and tone, a extra rising section at the front of the stage (close enough to count the creases of Nathan’s Lane’s crow’s feet), and countless other adaptable ways of moving and dividing up the performance space. One particularly memorable moment came near the beginning of Prior’s demise, in which Prior’s hallucination materialised: a lectern rose from the floor and the book atop it opened to spit out a gargantuan ripple of flames. Though the action was scripted, the emotions on stage were as real as my fear of leaving with singed eyebrows.  Although one is reluctant to discuss this “gay fantasia” with terms like camp, the sheer decadence in the production is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s comments on “the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive” that aesthetic ‘camp’ involves.

Belize (Stewart-Jarrett) comforts a deteriorating Prior (Garfield) (Helen Maybanks)

The play benefited from its lack of the didactic: in refraining from vehement anti-religious or anti-government sentiment, the production retained a quiet acknowledgement of the complexities that lie beneath wrong decisions. Yael Farber’s Salomé, which ran alongside Angels in America in the Olivier Theatre, was unashamedly the opposite. It was undoubtedly feminist, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial, and communicated this using well-established metaphors: wet/dry equates to enlightened/ignorant, the colonised landscape reflects the oppressed female body, and so on. The modern relevance of Salomé’s story was not communicated subtly, nor was it meant to be. However, the play could not stand apart from paratextual knowledge of the biblical sources and Western Christian culture, and without context the didactic message of the play would be lost. Where Salomé utilised allegory and archetype, Angels resisted in favour of diversifying, rather than synonymising, individual experience of AIDS.

The amalgamation of realist and absurd moments that pervaded Angels in America pushed the audience’s suspension of disbelief to its foremost limits in a Shakespearean fashion: Prior retaining a feather from the angel, the deceased Ethel Rosenberg calling an ambulance for Roy, or Prior and Harper’s coy recognition of one another from their dreams recall the historic theatrical problems of the messengers seeing the king’s ghost in the opening of Hamlet or Banquo bearing witness to the witches in Macbeth. The fantastical production and mammoth length made Angels in America a feat of theatricality: the questionable existence of the angels becomes as arbitrary as the artifice of the performance on-stage. The play dramatised how simply existing as a minority can be a dangerous business, as relevant in the US now as ever. It can be easier to spot and accept injustice in a period piece than in a contemporary setting: though the world has changed since the mid-1980s, it is important to resist concluding that the suppression dramatised in this play is a thing of the past. For its political delicacy, emotional subtlety and artistic merit, a high-profile revival of Angels in America in America should be sought tout suite.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s