The National Theatre has lavished its considerable resources on a magisterial revival of Tony Kushner’s masterworks, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, collectively known as Angels in America, “a gay fantasia on national themes.”
A cosmic soap opera of Wagnerian proportions, Kushner slips a thermometer under the tongue of a sick nation whose temperature, he reads, hovers around the 105-degree mark. Both plays scatter surreal and metaphysical grace notes as they examine the personal lives of a group of emblematic but vividly characterised men coping with the burgeoning AIDS epidemic during the Reagan administration in the 80s.
Angels was first presented by the National as a diptych at the Cottesloe Theatre in 1993 and now, befitting its ever-increasing status, has been elevated to the wider spaces of the Lyttelton where director Marianne Elliott (War Horse) directs a starry cast in a large-scale production that vividly emphasises the plays' considerable strengths as well as their flaws.
Though the soul of the work is its forensic examination of the conflicting and contradictory impulses of an America at odds with itself, at its heart is the deeply personal drama of Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a flamboyant drag queen afflicted with the AIDS virus, the grim reality of which his loquacious, self-absorbed Jewish liberal boyfriend Louis (James McArdle) is unable to face and abandons him.
Louis’ next conquest is Joe Pitt (Rusell Tovey), a Mormon lawyer who, although married to Harper (Denise Gough), a deeply frustrated valium-guzzling wife, is taking a tentative peek out of the closet and reluctantly likes what he sees. Joe’s mentor is the real-life Roy Cohn (himself an erstwhile mentor of the young Donald Trump), the unequivocal villain of the piece. A septic carbuncle on the face of humanity and virulently corrupted by power, Cohn, brilliantly embodied by an astonishing performance from Broadway’s Nathan Lane, is the personification of evil. Himself a homosexual in denial, Cohn claims that gay men have “zero clout.” He, on the other hand, is “a heterosexual who just happens to sleep with men.” Turns out he too is dying of AIDS – or “cancer,” as he prefers to call it.
Millennium Approaches ends with an angel (Amanda Lawrence) bursting into Prior’s bedroom, proclaiming him to be a prophet and to announce that “the great work begins.”
Although Part Two, Perestroika, resonates with several memorable scenes, it also bogs down on occasion in lengthy political, ideological and metaphysical riffs. It begins with an elderly Bolshevik (Susan Brown) haranguing us on the perils of reform, and climaxes, some four hours later, in a portentous section in which a black-clad Prior finds himself climbing a ladder into an hallucinatory heaven whose angels are ineffectual, God having abandoned the human race on April 18, 1906, the day of the San Francisco earthquake. Things will only change, it is saying, when we adopt a more serene outlook and introduce some calming “stasis” into the next millennium (the play was begun in 1990).
Much happens in between, notably the death of Roy Cohn, witnessed by a phantom Ethel Rosenberg (Brown), whose execution Cohn was instrumental in bringing about. Cohn’s agonising demise is overseen by a black nurse called Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who alone manages to show some compassion for his noxious patient, granting him his dying wish: that Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, be said over his bedside.
Hannah, Joe’s Mormon mother (Brown again), has moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn, where she forms an unlikely friendship with Prior. Her son’s integrity, meanwhile, is compromised by a series of anti-gay lawsuits he’s been working on, and a bedroom punch-up between him and Louis over their different political agendas ends their relationship. Joe returns to Harper, but she rejects him and goes to live in San Francisco. Louis returns to Prior, but is also rejected. It’s Prior’s determination to move forward and somehow to hang onto life that has miraculously kept him alive.
Though AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it was 35 years ago, Angels in America is, in other respects, as relevant to contemporary America as it was during Reagan’s second term. It remains, despite its longueurs, excesses, indulgences and self-consciously Shavian rhetoric, one of the finest, most compelling and innovative American plays of the last quarter century.
As specified by Kushner, the eight central actors are required not only to play many smaller roles, but also on occasion to change genders. The cast is outstanding. Garfield is superb both in gesture and intonation as the outwardly camp but vulnerable Prior, whose metamorphosis over the play’s five-year period is the glue that binds the work and provides it with its centre of gravity.
Gough’s Harper is possibly more low-key than usual, but the pain, frustration and confusion in which her character is pickled is touchingly and convincingly conveyed. The ubiquitous Brown is excellent too, while Tovey, sporting a pitch-perfect American accent, never falters as the conflicted Joe. The play’s one uncompromisingly likeable and genuinely humane character is swishy Belize, beautifully realised by Stewart-Jarrett.
Kushner has gone on record saying the work benefits from a paired-down set, and what he gets from Ian MacNeill are a series of movable acting areas framed in fluorescent strips that part to reveal the open spaces required for the hallucinatory Antarctica, Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Central Park and Heaven sequences, none of it especially eye-catching. What is, though, is the enormous angel designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes, elaborately costumed by Nicky Gillibrand and manipulated by several stagehands.
However, the magic isn’t in the way the show looks but in its content. Despite its many self-conscious flourishes and prolix passages, Kushner’s script, with its witty one-liners, unfailing sense of characterisation, foresight, anger and passion, remains one to relish. This stimulating revival, though not perfect, does it proud.