Tuesday 6 June 2017

Angels in America

National Theatre (Lyttelton)
3rd June 2017, two play day

Where do I even begin? Tony Kushner’s monolith of a play is epic in length (we attended a two play day, so it clocked in at a mammoth 7 ½ hours, not including breaks!), scope, and theme. Covering an expanse of issues including history, migration, the planet, evolution, politics, sex, love, life and identity both personal and national, the mere programming of Angels In America at the National Theatre had prematurely ensured its status as the theatrical event of the year. With this predetermination, Marianne Elliott, no doubt, had the weight of fevered expectation resting heavy on her shoulders, and while it is difficult to separate my thoughts on her production from my thoughts and feelings regarding Kushner’s creation, I can unreservedly say that she did not disappoint!

Hugely funny, devastatingly profound, charmingly messy, and, for all the pain of its subject matter, Angels in America is ultimately a lesson in hope and the uniquely human capacity for resilience. We roam locations diverse as Central Park, Utah, Antarctica and heaven itself. We meet characters diverse as a Jewish Rabbi, conflicted Mormons, and the infamous corrupt lawyer, Roy Cohn. Elliott’s production captures this variety in all its bemusing, visceral and scorching tenderness. When I read the plays earlier this year the more fantastical and divine sections (particularly those in Perestroika) left me in awed bafflement – I appreciated Kushner’s vision, but I struggled to see how it could tangibly manifest onstage without seeming gauche and somewhat silly – but I blame this on my lack of creative imagination, as in Elliott’s hands these scenes became some of my favourite moments.

In fact, the Angel scenes are where Elliott most visibly makes her mark. Reminiscent of the use of movement in Curious Incident, The Light Princess and even the puppetry of War Horse, the Angel feels like a living, breathing creature, her fluid and ethereal movement making the stasis and inaction of the god-forsaken divine creatures all the more potent. I loved Amanda Lawrence’s skeletal, banshee-like Angel, draped in a tattered American flag, she seems less benevolent and more twisted and urgent. Similarly, heaven is akin to a nightmarish version of the Red Dwarf control room, populated by Angels that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys. It is effectiveless chaos; these angels wield no power, but merely witness the harshness administered in a godless world. When faced with this heaven-hell it becomes apparent that humanity must be propelled into action and realise the cause and effect of historic, social, political and cultural progression, both good and bad. By rejecting the Angels’ proposition of apathetic immobility, Prior accepts all this on behalf of humanity, the essence of ‘more life’ itself.

Perhaps it is this admirable resilience and Kushner’s subversion of stereotypical AIDS narratives that makes me fonder of Perestroika. If Millennium Approaches dramatizes destruction – of the body, of relationships, of sexual, religious and national identities - then Perestroika dramatizes resurrection and is an unlikely ‘feel-good’ play. This disparity is echoed in Ian MacNeil’s set. Millennium Approaches’ design is both confining and confounding – revolving blocks of abstracted walls, doors and windows – I’m not sure we ever saw the same space configuration twice, yet as the blocks look uniformly familiar it creates a sense of the uncanny. Thus, when towards the end of the play, and for the whole of Perestroika, the stage opens up into a single vast space it feels like the production is able to breathe more, expanding in scope and generally feeling more fluid and coherent.

Of course this is vastly helped by the extended time we spend with the characters. As flawed people, they are 100% believable. Waspish, caring, pithy, tender, their identities are confused or concealed, but with an occasional pin precise illumination of heart and soul. Some are in equal measures sympathetic, attractive and infuriating (Louis, I’m looking at you!), and others are so fragile you want to bubble wrap them in warmth and protection (Harper and Prior, for me). Even in all his horrific, bile-spewn nastiness and homophobia, Roy Cohn induces some sympathy by proxy in his pitiful denial of his sexuality.

These characters are brought to life by a cast at the absolute top of their game. Susan Brown is a chameleon, you’d be hard pressed to recognise her playing the Rabbi, Prelapsarianov, Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt. Andrew Garfield’s Prior is both hilariously OTT and incredibly sensitive, vocally and physically giving his all, he looked absolutely exhausted by the final curtain call. Denise Gough takes all the turmoil she displayed in her outstanding performance in People, Places and Things, and expands upon it, showing a deeper breadth of emotion as the lonely, Valium addicted Harper Pitt. The scenes between Harper and Prior were wonderful (I especially liked Harper’s tiny, knowing gesture towards Prior following her exit from Joe). The casting of New York theatre legend Nathan Lane to play another, rather different, New York legend allows us to feel the character’s prominence. He physically changes as the plays go on, deteriorating in front of us, yet that famous voice of his still conveys the humour, vitriol and occasional humanity of Cohn. Amidst a starry cast with great clout, it speaks volumes that James McArdle, for me an unknown quantity, is utterly compelling as Louis. He is a character that, in his verbose hypocrisy, I swiftly lost patience with while reading the play – Louis’s actions cannot easily be forgiven, but in McArdle’s hands I at least felt I understood his motivations, frustrations, and masochistic need for catharsis.

After the play I overheard two audience members discussing Prior’s final speech. They wished to have seen the play when initially produced, as it would seem more ‘relevant’. However, is the play not just as relevant today? It may be contextually specific but remains thematically universal – we still live in a world of disease, cultural conflict and racial tension, frighteningly right-wing politics (Trump is the new Reagan, if not worse, no?). The sense that in recent years Western society has regressed in regards to extremist political views and prejudices (whether that be racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia etc.) suggests to me that the promotion of progressivity in Angels is as pertinent as ever. Kushner showcases life in its rich and various glories and horrors, and, as Prior says, we are ‘fabulous creatures’ for all our complexities. Therefore, the final revelation – the vast, space-age metallic structure that has loomed above the stage for 7 hours transforming into the cleansing waters of the Central Park Bethesda fountain – sums up the rippling positivity during the closing moments of the play. However cynical, oppressive, and downright painful life can be, we must make of it what we can – the ‘world only spins forward’ and change lies in our hands.

It’s a play which, when reading it, seems near-on impossible to stage. I don’t know where Elliott and her team (from automation to stage management) would have started when mounting it. I can’t pretend towards even beginning to fully comprehend Kushner’s play in its multitudinous range, but this play was an experience, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I can understand the trepidation with which producers/directors approach it. I apologise if this review has seemed overly gushy, but it is a play that restores my faith in humanity and that is, indeed, a blessing.

Angels in America plays at the National Theatre until 19th August.

James McArdle as Louis and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in Angels in America at the NT. Photo by Helen Maybanks

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