“A gay fantasia on national themes” is the label Tony Kushner gave his playAngels in America, which is being staged at the National Theatre for the first time since the 90s, and what a fantasia it is. Grounded in 1980s New York, the action sprawls across reality and delusion, from Salt Lake City to Washington DC, from Antarctica to Heaven, dancing on the edge of utter madness but never stumbling. Tony Kushner’s writing is bold, profound, and urgent with frequent bright sparks of comedic brilliance. Even on the occasions the script spirals into dense segments of over-arch philosophising, this cast and crew make it soar.
Director Marianne Elliot, who in 2011 won a Tony Award for War Horse, has created a theatrical spectacle to be marvelled over. Columns of fire erupt inches from the audience, hospital rooms rise from within the bowels of the stage, neon shining ladders are thrown down from Heaven, New York apartments transfigure themselves into the snow drifts of Antarctica and back again, all under a deconstructed space-age cathedral dome. Special mentions must go to production designers, Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes, who have fashioned the The Angel her “steel gray wings” from huge feathered contraptions that are operated by balletic puppeteers. These wings caress, menace and take flight, all in jaw dropping fashion.
Director Marianne Elliot, who in 2011 won a Tony Award for War Horse, has created a theatrical spectacle to be marvelled over.
As magnificent as the staging is, it never overshadows the acting. Nathan Lane is incandescent as Roy Cohn, a real-life lawyer who desperately tries to deny his homosexuality, even as he slowly dies from AIDs. He is tremendous as the corrupt power-broker, whose energy never wanes, even afters hours of turning purple in the face from bellowing Malcolm Tucker-esque profanity at anyone who will listen. In any other production, perhaps Lane could’ve stolen the show, but here he is given a run for his money from his castmates, each of whom seem to be giving the performance of their lives.
Denise Gough, playing Harper Pitt, a woman who is verging constantly on the edge of psychosis, is funny, heart-breaking, and uplifting. Nathan Stewart-Jarett, familiar from Channel 4’s Misfits, lights up the stage as the witty, warm, and wise Belize, often the sole voice of reason amongst a group of characters where each is more neurotic than the last. Amanda Lawrence, as The Angel is truly magnificent, filled with the manifest dignity that Kushner demands of the role in the stage notes to the play.
As for Andrew Garfield, who plays Prior Walter, a drag queen whose life irrevocably changes when he discovers a Karposi’s Sarcoma lesion on his arm, this is surely a career-defining performance. He is impossible to look away from even when his character slips out of the spotlight. Garfield gives a tender, camp performance filled with pathos which matures over the course of the play. There are moments early on where the characterization drifts ever so slightly into the realm of stereotype, but perhaps this too, is intended -after all- Angels in America is just as much about types of people as it is living breathing humans.
Garfield gives a tender, camp performance filled with pathos which matures over the course of the play.
At its core, Kushner’s polemic is a searing account of the AIDS crisis- a modern plague- and the destruction it wreaked in the lives of gay men who found themselves as patients with terminal diagnoses, or the carers of dying friends and lovers before they had even reached middle age. Recent healthcare reforms in America have fuelled fears that the new administration will mark a return of government inaction as citizens suffer. Indeed, much of the political art created in the shadow of Reagan and Thatcher, including the slogan "Silence=Death" which was created by gay activists in 80s New York in response to the AIDS epidemic, seems all too relevant now. One need not delve too deep to look for parallels to the political climate 30 years ago; the morally bankrupt Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s legal advisor. The influence of Cohn's machinations, far from waning, is now spreading farther than ever.
Angels in America rages against the hard-line religious conservative movement that sees ‘progress’ as a dirty word. Yet, whilst its nearest literary relative, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, also about the AIDS crisis in New York, is sustained on a steady stream of righteous anger, Kushner’s Angels takes a more hopeful stance. It is an ode, as the Thomas Lux poem goes, to the unbroken world that is coming.
On press night, the end of the second part, 'Perestoika', received a thunderous standing ovation. It was in no small part a reaction to the final scene which Andrew Garfield delivers a call to arms in a way so hair-raisingly magical that is difficult to convey. Earlier in the year, at The Hollywood Reporter's Oscar Actors Roundtable, Garfield spoke eloquently of the importance of creating art that speaks to marginalised communities who are desperately looking for media that represents them, that recognises them, Angels in America is one of those rare gems. Go and see it.