Angels in America Parts 1 and 2 (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: June 16, 2017 in Theatre

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Declan Donnellen’s productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Part 1 in 1992 and both parts in 1993) in what is now the Dorfman Theatre are embedded in my memory so deeply and they are so much cherished that I did not want them tarnished and I approached this revival with great trepidation. However, with director Marianne Elliot  at the helm and a stellar cast which includes two Hollywood A-listers, there was no need to worry. One major concern  had been the Lyttelton, because, although this is a work on an epic scale, its detail is intimate and its nature is delicate. Many such works have floundered on this enormous stage in the past, but Elliot has complete command of the space, using Ian MacNeil’s moveable sets to close it down and confine the action to small areas and then open out the entire stage exactly when needed. The design also helps the production to flow and, with an overall running time of seven hours 45 minutes (including intervals), there is not a second to be wasted.

Kushner writes about the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America in the 1980s, but he makes his play a metaphor for a country coming to terms with its diseased soul and striving to purge itself of McCarthyism, homophobia, racism, corruption and hypocrisy. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is the alternative title given by Kushner and he uses nightmares and hallucinations to expand on his ideas, introducing a dark angel, a vengeful ghost and mischievous ancestral spirits to his three interwoven narrative strands, one of which is based on fact. Part 1 (Millennium Approaches) is shorter by 45 minutes than Part 2 (Perestroika).

Roy M Cohn is the real-life character. He was a ruthless, power-hungry attorney who had been a prosecutor involved in the McCarthy “witch hunt” trials of the early 1950s and, using unscrupulous means, he had secured the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. A closeted homosexual, he is diagnosed with AIDS at the beginning of the plays. Joseph Pitt is Cohn’s protégé, a Mormon who is ambitious, but held back by his troubled, valium-dependent wife, Harper, and tormented by his own latent homosexuality. Louis Ironson is a Jewish temp in Cohn’s office who shies away from personal responsibility and, after turning his back on his AIDS-stricken partner, Prior Walter, he becomes involved with Joseph.

This makes for some pretty heavy drama, but one of the most striking features of Elliot’s production is the extent to which she finds the comedy in Kushner’s writing and brings it to the fore. The casting of Nathan Lane as Cohn helps her greatly. He is first seen juggling telephone calls in a comic routine that could have come from The Producers and then he makes a journey that takes him from Max Bialystock to King Lear in a performance of thunderous power. Kushner’s loathing for Cohn is clear in the writing, but it is matched by a revulsion that we feel comes from deep within Lane and fills the theatre. Cohn shares no scenes with Prior, but an astonishing performance by Andrew Garfield in that role sustains the tragi-comedy in Lane’s absence. Defiantly effeminate and broken in body, Garfield’s Prior is a hero for our times whose spirit soars, making him ready to take on the world, armed only with the lethal weapon of cutting sarcasm.

James McArdle is also wonderful as the self-pitying Louis. His tangled, woolly liberalism contrasts sharply with the cold clarity of Cohn’s conservatism and highlights what Kushner sees as an obstacle to America’s progress. Russell Tovey’s Joseph is outwardly upstanding and true, but, guided by religious teaching, he is inwardly torn between his love for and duty towards his wife and an attraction to men that he battles to comprehend. Kate Harper stood in as Harper for Denise Gough at this performance of Part 1, both are excellent. Susan Brown appears in several roles, most memorably those of Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost and Joseph’s pious mother who becomes an unexpectedly sympathetic character. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett excels as Belize, the gay black nurse who takes both homophobia and racism in his stride as he minces between the hospital rooms of Cohn, the patient that he reviles, and his friend Prior.

Elliot’s staging is, at times, breathtaking. Her angel (played by Amanda Lawrence) has spectacular wings, controlled by puppeteers, her Antarctica (a fantasy scene) is a vast snowy wasteland. The only criticism of Kushner is his apparent lack of discipline which leads to him getting carried away when pursuing his complex themes. It is difficult to justify the plays’ extravagant length and Part 2 in particular could only gain by losing at least an hour. Nonetheless, in among the near eight hours total, there are four or more hours of absolutely incomparable theatre, scenes that make the nerve ends tingle and possibly more quotable lines than in Hamlet.

Like most masterpieces, Angels in America is flawed, but it is a monumental work which Elliot’s revival has shown to be of enduring significance. Part 2 ends with an ironic twist that is richly satisfying and underlines Kushner’s optimism that the new Millennium would bring a bright new dawn. However, we now know the reality and an ironic link of a darker kind has emerged. Not mentioned in the plays, presumably because,it was thought of little interest when they were written, is the fact that, for five years in the 1970’s, Roy Cohn acted as Attorney for Donald Trump. Thus Kushner’s metaphor has now taken on a further dimension. If HIV/AIDS can be treated but not yet cured, perhaps the same can be said of America’s ills.

Performance dates: 12 and 13 June 2017

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