Set to be the theatrical event of the year, Angels In America is finally on at the National Theatre with a stellar cast, including television’s Russell Tovey and Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield. Having first premiered in 1991 and 1992, Tony Kushner’s magnum opus is as intimate in narrative as it is epic in scope, tackling morality and mortality in the land of the free amidst the backdrop of the rising AIDs epidemic in the 80s. With unforgettable characters and an incredible storyline, this eight hour masterpiece keeps audience enthralled throughout and remains of the most well-paced, extraordinary plays ever.
Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Angels In America is a play I read ages ago and even watched the HBO miniseries starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, but remember very little of. Coming into the theatre, it’s easy to be filled with a little trepidation at the prospect of sitting down for approximately 8 hours. But my fears were assuaged the moment the play began, as brash, cutthroat lawyer Roy Cohn (a red-faced Nathan Lane) juggled phonecall after phonecall, delivering an air of both ferocious aptitude and condescending humour, while closeted Mormon colleague Joseph Pitt watches (Looking/Him and Her’s Russell Tovey, adopting an American accent), unable to get a word in, an exchange that seethed with energy and moved at a brisk, enjoyable pace. Later on though, Joseph is more than able to hold his own as he stands up for his own beliefs and morals in the face of Roy’s more underhand dealings, and Tovey manages to expertly portray the journey of a man whose entire worldview comes to a crash as he reconciles his identity.
In many ways, Millennium Approaches is precisely about a new instability as the 21st century looms. Under Republican president Reagan, fear and paranoia contributes to mounting uncertainty in the world, and the land of the free has become foreign in the eyes of its own citizens, as Louis Ironson (James McArdle) so eloquently puts in a misguided but well-meaning monologue. Lou’s own world is coming apart as he attends his grandmother’s funeral, before further coming apart as he becomes wracked by guilt at being unable to handle his long-term boyfriend’s battle against AIDs, unable to cope with the gravity of it all. Said boyfriend Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) himself is becoming unravelled as he spirals into madness at being abandoned by Lou while descending into his illness, hallucinating ancestors (hilariously) come to herald a supernatural visit and feathers that fall from the sky. Meanwhile Roy Cohn too is revealed to have AIDs, but unlike Prior, determinedly refuses to admit that he is coming apart. After all, ‘AIDs is what homosexuals have’, and by god he most certainly isn’t a man without clout, who has no need to keep fighting for his rights only to have nothing to show for it. And as for Harper (a stunning, sharp performance from Denise Gough), Joseph’s pill-popping wife, her world has come apart a long time ago, and she seeks solace in her own drug-induced hallucinations.
Marianne Elliott’s revival is a glimpse into queer history, reminding the liberal gay present of the sacrifices of their homosexual forebears. In a sense, it is interesting that Prior Walter has his own (illusory) ancestors heralding the coming of the Angel (Amanda Lawrence), perhaps a sign that one needs to look to one’s own past for comfort before the terrifying future descends upon us (with wings spread wide and rapturous voice). So many of the characters have learned or are learning to harden themselves and their hearts in the cold environment of New York, tough and gritty. Elliott’s direction keeps its characters firmly grounded and believable, and properly surprised by the magic elements that worm their way in, her pacing akin to binge watching a TV series that you can’t tear your eyes away from.
The true superstars of Angels really are Nathan Lane’s immovable turn as Roy Cohn, who was based on an actual lawyer of the same name in the 70s, and Lane’s fearsome portrayal cements Roy as a diva in denial, equal parts (terrifying) father figure and evil lawyer, a true bastard audiences hate to love and love to hate. Denise Gough’s role as Harper Pitt gives the character a strength beyond her addiction, and Harper becomes a person one desperately wants to be happy as she is beset by the confusion of her husband’s homosexuality and the paranoia that informs her every move, as well as an easy access point to the scenes of the fantastic with her drug addled vision.
As ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, Angels in America is most certainly ambitious in its approach and scope, but for the most part, it achieves it while being unimaginably entertaining. Of course, while its setting is firmly in the past, there’s an enduring urgency to it that lives on in its theatrical medium – coming into 2017, the world seems once again thrust into uncertainty and conservatism, with the millennial generation in particular feeling like one that is lost and coming to terms with a new moral landscape and countless bullets to dodge as to what’s ‘right’ and whether we truly are living in an era of freedom. Shackled by old morals and the guilt of being unable to conform to the current ideal morals, perhaps, like Angels, we could do with some shaking up as we enter a new age and a kind of Perestroika and reformation, as we embark on Part 2 of Angels in America.
Part 2: Perestroika
Perestroika takes Angels down a seemingly more farcical route at first. At the end of Millennium Approaches, the stage has been completely peeled away of its revolving set to become a blank space, revealing the theatre’s roof, lighting and harnesses, reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre. At the same time, there’s absolutely no scrimping on the other stage elements, as the boundaries between fiction and reality have been completely eradicated, allowing the possibility of literally anything and everything happening.
But even with the surprisingly large number of laughs, Tony Kushner really allows for plenty of creative direction in Part 2, and Marianne Elliott makes full use of it, from a talking diorama to an inspired portrayal of Angels’ version of paradise, while Nicky Gillbrand’s delectable new costumes offer new sights in every scene, from the Angel’s American Flag skirt, part of an entire getup that could well feature in a Born This Way-era Lady Gaga’s music video, and Belize’s increasingly fabulous outfits, from a leopard-cuffed shirt to what is essentially a groovy technicolour dreamcoat.
It’s not often you get a campy, flamboyant, effeminate character as a saviour of mankind, but Prior is just that, and surprisingly, rises to the occasion. Andrew Garfield makes it clear that casting him was an amazing choice, as he milks every catty comeback for all its worth, and moves confidently in spite of the fear of impending death he continually chokes back behind his voice. Backed up by a surprising ally, Prior wrestles the Angel in a brilliantly choreographed sequence that combines light, sound and acrobatics to become epic and larger than life, enabling him to rise from pitiful scream queen to unlikely hero. Much of this is thanks to Finn Caldwell design of the Angel with black-clad puppeteers controlling the mechanical wings threateningly, perhaps a sliver of what remains from Marianne Elliott’s experience directing War Horse.
Nathan Lane remains MVP of the night, with his bastard act continuing all the way throughout his declining health, making for a faux redemption arc, pulling the rug right from under us just as he appears to have changed for the better, a conniving queer villain that remains scarily charming till the very end, even ending up with the last laugh against the spectral, doom-portending figure of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown, who also plays Joe’s domineering mother).
In Part 2, Denise Gough continues to deliver an amazing, gut wrenching performance as a wife in a loveless relationship, never resorting to hysterics, but able to express a myriad of emotions with a single devastated look on her face. But there is also a quiet, determined strength to her that reveals itself as she gains clarity, and Gough adroitly finds the method in Harper’s madness.
But it is to Russell Tovey and James McArdle’s credit then, that surprisingly, I found myself desperately rooting for them amidst all the chaos. Despite their polar opposite views in politics and religion, there was a genuine chemistry onstage the two shared and an underdog potential that made the eventual outcome all the more depressing. Russell Tovey, in particular, as a ‘gay virgin’, brought out the pure joy of falling in love for the first time, and as Louis finds himself unable to commit, utterly distressing watching Tovey’s crestfallen face, like a sad puppy, as it dawns on him the inevitability of finding happiness in his life. Joe’s story is the only one left inconclusive by the end of Angels, a personally frustrating open end that feels like a missing piece in the play. McArdle’s Louis continues to wax lyrical about politics out of his league as a mask to hide the immense guilt and pressure he is under, before finally getting his crowning (bruising) moment as he finally decides to make a stand for what he believes in, a genuine buildup that manages to avoid seeming contrived or convenient.
Perestroika continues on where Millennium Approaches left off – when change is coming, is all we can do to remain still and accept it, or should we keep moving no matter what, fighting to find meaning in life? Drawing from images of Mormon Americana, fearful heavens and inspired staging, the characters of Angels in America show the triumph of the human spirit and redeem the beauty and value of America through their choices. In the new world, there is healing to be done, and new identities to be forged amidst the tremors of change. The angels of olde are long gone, but new beliefs have risen up in place of them to lift the human spirit in times of greatest need.
Artfully painting a portrait of gay America in the 1980s while handling the touchy subject of AIDs both tastefully and entertainingly, Angels in America is a incredibly moving and realistic depiction of queer struggles that echoes its values even today. Guided by a visionary director, a team of capable creatives and armed with an incomparably talented cast, Angels in America is undoubtedly one of the best things on the London stage, a testament to its powerful poetic yet political script. Much like binge watching a good Netflix series, Angels’ sheer duration allows the audience time to fall in love with and chart its characters’ whirlwind growth and change, and as the curtains close, bid them farewell with thunderous applause and the standing ovation it rightfully deserves.
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks
Performance attended on 16/5/17.
Angels in America plays at the National Theatre till 19 August. Tickets are currently sold out, but interested buyers can take part in the Angels Ballot for a chance to buy tickets here, or queue up in person at the Box Office at the start of each day (queues have been known to start at 5am)