“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” – Harper Pitt, Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika
In early 2017, the National Theatre in London staged a behemoth of the America theatre. This production, twenty-five years after the National Theatre first premiered Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches (Part 2: Perestroika premiered the year after) simultaneously summons the past and makes correlations with the present day with lessons learned and unlearned.
To briefly surmise the plot of Angels is a task troubled in its objective and can only result in a failed execution. You cannot briefly describe the many and intricate relationships and pathways that develop over the 8-hour duration of both parts, however here is an attempt made for the sake of review purposes and in honour of brevity:
New York City. 1985. The AIDS epidemic is well and truly underway. Prior (Andrew Garfield) is in his early thirties and has been newly diagnosed. His boyfriend Louis (James McArdle) approaches the disease in a similar manner to which he approaches the world: with great anxiety, causing added trouble. Across town, Joe (Russell Tovey) and Harper (Denise Gough) both struggle to live the lie that their Mormon life and marriage has become. Joe avoids the home to all ends as he deals with his emerging sexuality, leaving Harper to delude herself with daily pill popping and pondering her own existential reality.
A lawyer by trade, Joe has a close mentor relationship with the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) who is dealing with his own health struggles. Add into the mix Joe’s mother Hannah from Salt Lake City (Susan Brown), a gay nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and the Angel (Amanda Lawrence) and you have the principal set of characters. All actors take on at least one other role with actors like Brown and Lawrence taking on many more.
Millennium Approaches (Part 1) is very much about an impending doom. The characters are struggling to understand what is happening within their own lives as well as society at large. The first part poses many philosophical questions without focusing too greatly on the answers. These characters are searching for meaning and struggling with their constructed identity full of confusion and limitations.
Perestroika (Part 2) focuses on a complete systematic breakdown of reality and truth when the Angel appears. Louis mentions in Millennium Approaches that “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics.” Moving past the extensive monologues in Millennium Approaches, Perestroika heads into new territory by using theatrical surrealism, evident with the angel as well as using the historical (and deceased) figure of Ethel Rosenberg.
From the onset, Angels takes a cerebral (and potentially heavy) thematic exploration. And yet in Perestroika, the “fantasia” in the extended title of the play “A gay fantasia on national themes” comes into play to tremendous effect. Ultimately, the lives of the characters in Perestroikaare reconstructed (echoing the definition of ‘perestroika’ literally in the context of the Soviet political economy of the late 1980s.) Most characters develop a deeper understanding of humanity, and some even undergo a complete transformation of their character.
With 890 seats, the proscenium nature of the Lyttleton Theatre gives an immediate intimacy to the staging, made a little more intimate with the proximity of the camera, an instance not usually present in the theatre.
Director Marianne Elliott is patient with Kushner’s script and lets the actors draw out every syllable, sometimes with an overbearing effect – particularly within the many comedic moments of the play. Indeed hers is a tough job for those audience members familiar with the play or the HBO 2003 multi award winning mini-series adaptation with Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson.
Set design and lighting are close to bare, giving an exposing and raw quality to the scenes, best seen in Joe and Harper’s apartment. Additionally, the costumes are similarly basic in function, and yet the Angel’s costume is beautifully detailed and extended with a range of “shadows” (actors literally extending the wings out).
It is beyond fair to say that you cannot see a bad performance for any actor that is able to get through even one of the six acts within the two plays. It is even fairer to say that Elliott has rounded together a group of tremendous actors, giving some notable performances. Nathan Lane shatters any preconceived notions any audience member may have had of his comedic skills. He can still carry a comedic line with ease and probably better than anyone else, but his power as the indomitable and possessive Roy Cohn is something to behold. Andrew Garfield is solid too, especially within his darker scenes, but the comedic element of his character comes across as too showy at times. Amanda Lawrence, Susan Brown and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett are all equally fantastic and disappear into their roles so well you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are different actors. Russell Tovey is quite strong in a role that could be easily described as the quietest of the group, which is an impressive feat. But perhaps the strongest performances are delivered by Denise Gough and James McArdle. Their roles are laden with the most words, acting as monolithic monologues spiraling out of control and yet ever so gracefully making so much sense of such a world in turmoil.
Kushner’s script is so deeply laden with an expansive range of themes that it’s possible to get something different every time you see this play. There’s good reason why these two plays came to theatres with the name “a gay fantasia on national themes”. Racial, gender, sexual and governmental politics are simply surface level. While Angels is synonymous as a gay centric text, so many other issues are explored including race, gender, economics, religion and more.
Seeing this play on the big screen, or anywhere really, is an opportunity that theatregoers should not pass up. At 8 hours all up, Angels in America does demand a lot from its audience, but the play when properly performed (such as in this production) rewards the audience in abundance.
NT Live: Angels in America has a limited screening engagement from 9th September through Sharmill Films.