Experiencing Angels in America on stage isn’t just a privilege, it’s a rite: a revelation that outshines anything and everything.
Set in 1985 at the height of the HIV/AIDs academic in America, Tony Kushner was yet another playwright to break the taboo of AIDs with what is now an iconic, cult, and revered text. This is a landmark play not just within the LGBTQ community, but theatre as a whole due to its immense and epic nature. Angels in America follows a group of interconnected New Yorkers on the precipice of death, sanity, sexuality, and religion, tearing at the very fabric of American idealism as the world falls apart during the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
It would be easy to make an understandably maudlin play about HIV: it was a horrific time for the LGBTQ community. But as appropriate as it is to mourn those we lost to the disease and rage against the exacerbation of the epidemic due to rank homophobia, it is just as appropriate to challenge perceptions of what the epidemic was by humanising the people affected by contradicting the portrait of sub-human beings who “deserved” to contract the disease that prevailed then and prevails even now. Kushner’s response, like William M. Hoffman did with As Is, is to not only write with incredible observation of people, but do so with a sharp bittersweet humour that cuts straight through to the issues with an alarming and savage grace. You’ll most certainly laugh out loud plenty of times, but the guffaws always come with a real stab to the heart. At the same-time, Kushner knows just to get under your skin. He knows how the make you care for his characters, even though all deeply flawed, that you hurt as much as them. Coupled with the crazed and fantastical lilt to everything that’s going on, Angels in America is an all encompassing immersion of intelligence, fantasy, and humanity that is as shattering as it is elating.
The two parts of Angels in America are two very different beasts, although something that should be consumed as a whole if possible. Part 1, Millennium Approaches, is a grand, sweeping, beautifully ludicrous epic, as well as including exquisitely deep characters that deal with very complex issues about sexuality and health. There’s the closet of religion, the other closest of status quo, the struggle with addiction, fear of facing reality, and fear of being alone: to pick out just a handful of intense themes to Angels in America. Underneath all of this is a really thick foundation of ruminating ideals, theoretical dogma, justice, and umpteen clever little parallels that trump and complicate your way of thinking. Chuck in a load of supernature like angels, clairvoyance, and ghosts, and you’ve got this ridiculous but intensely intricate piece that is intoxicatingly rich.
Part 2: Perestroika is very differently paced compared to Millennium Approaches. Gone is the huge colossal climaxes of Millennium Approaches, and you’re left with a much deeper, much more intense exploration and tying up of the characters and narrative. That’s not at all to say it’s unsatisfying: far from it. You’re plunged even further into their pathos and predicaments; Perestroika is a deeper and intenser affair. Yes, a lot of Kushner’s trademark black humour and grand fantasy is there, but the more microscopic examination of the characters really does pack a punch. I can understand why people prefer Millennium Approaches to Perestroika; Millennium Approaches is undeniably dizzying. But Perestroika is where the real meat of Angels in America is. It’s where the myriad issues that the play deals with really take flight, even if the you need to strap in for a much more focused and difficult ride. It’s in Perestroika that you’re further and fundamentally challenged and changed.
Considering Angels in America on a whole, despite it’s stylistically polemic halves, it’s an insanely brilliant and engrossing piece that absorbs your empathy and your fantasy. It’s difficult to come away from it not just wowed by its splendid audacity, but moved and pricked by the lives of its characters. Kushner’s writing is rightly regarded as a masterpiece: it’s full of humour, introspection, self-awareness, and spiked anger. Angels in America was incredibly deserving of it’s watershed status in both the theatrical and LGBTQ canon of writing then, and over 25 years on it’s still as relevant, astonishing, and exhaustingly potent.
Direction & Production
Millennium Approaches is very intricately designed by Ian MacNeil. It’s disrupted revolving walls with neon garnishes revolving stretching far back into the Lyttleton’s unreasonably deep stage not only looks like a sprawling cityscape, but one that’s fractured and fluid. Despite it’s constant motion, it does become a touch underwhelming through the first two acts as it doesn’t change much. But in the third act the stage climaxes and reveals itself much like the text. In Perestroika, MacNeil makes this all pretty much disappear and it’s so bare and simple that the contrast between the two parts is stark indeed: just some light to denote floor space, and doors and props wheeled in. However, it’s absolutely perfect for Perestroika. Not only does it visually encapsulate the desolation and desperation of the characters in Perestroika, but means that the audience can focus solely on the interactions and dialogue rather than the swirling set around it. But even then, there’s still some brilliant moments of staging in here that provide some sumptuous visual moments, regardless of how empty it might look on the surface. This includes little nuances like the fact that some scenes are always configured differently, giving a sense of strange disorientation and surreality.
Everything else about the production is just perfect, too. Finn Caldwell’s puppetry brings The Angel America to strange and lucid life. Ian Dickinson’s sound design goes from oppressing orchestra music giving the show a grand cinematic/operatic feel to falling back into almost unnoticeable but deeply atmospheric soundscapes. Paule Constable’s lighting also goes from strange neon hues to softness and dreamlike washes that make the stage look almost like a renaissance painting at points.
Marianne Elliott’s direction really pushes Angels and America and its performers to its limits. Yes, the entire saga comes in at seven and a half hours long (including two intervals per part), but absolutely nothing languishes under Elliott’s watch as the pace is always pushed to breaking point. Yes, there are moments where you have just enough time to gulp in the complexity of the text between your tears and/or laughs, but there’s an ever prevailing sense of snowballing chaos. There’s little breathing room, just a hectic and dangerous sense of locomotion to the entirety of Angels in America. It’s exhausting, but always invigorating, where not one bit that drags even in the more wordy and exploratory Perestroika.
The acid test was always going to be how well the National Theatre make Perestroika sing, which is does, as well as make Millennium Approaches feel like the fireworks in the firmament it deserves to be. But the real jewel of the production is just how considered and deliberate an identity that each part has that shows that, even if on the surface it doesn’t wow like you think it would, there’s so much more going on on both sides of this monumentous coin.
Oh, this is the bit I know most people will want to be reading about as it’s a pretty damn star-studded cast, with Andrew Garfield taking the central role of Prior Walter. Of course, Garfield is magnificent. He revels in the madness and distraction of Prior as his health and his relationship falls apart, flung into the crazy pandemonium of Kushner’s imaging. You can’t help but be transfixed by him at all times: riled by his fury, crushed by his heartache, or punch-drunk by the completely insane predicament of being a prophet and the visions and visitations he has. It’s a glitter-dunked wrecking-ball of a performance; as feisty, fabulous, and electrically fucked-up as it comes.
For the sake of brevity in this review (although, it’s not like me to try to be brief, right?), if I had to chose one other actor to lavish with praise, although every single one of the cast is as deserving of their own paragraph, it would have to be Nathan Lane. Lane uses turns his exquisite gift for comedy into corrosive and vitriolic combustion as much loathed Roy M Cohn. When Lane flies of the handle it is hideous and unyielding. It’s clear that Lane is not just made for this role, but laps up the pathos with his entire theatrical appetite. If I wanted to be sensationalist about it (which I do), I’d say Lane outperforms Al Pacino who played the role in the 2003 HBO adaptation of Angels in America. Lane’s performance really gets deep into the complexity of Roy’s character, despite the smothering sprinkles of glorious bile that peppers him. Under Lane’s blistering reign, Roy really is the character you’ll hate to love and love to hate, but simultaneously be the most challenged by the veins of self-loathing and pride that makes him a most intricate fascination.
To see Angels in America on stage is just something else. You feel torn apart and made anew through the laughter, the tears, and the challenges it pitches right at your gut. You can throw every hyperbole you’d like at it, and it still wouldn’t do this production of this crucial play enough justice. Simply, you can’t not see this.