Review of Angels in America at the National Theatre: Event Theatre at its finest
The sense of anticipation and foreboding that runs through each of Tony Kushner's carefully constructed characters at the brink of the new millennium captures the audience in an equally prophetic manner as they arrive for the latest example of 'event theatre' to take London by storm. Twenty five years since its original première Angels in America may have a new place in the cultural Zeitgeist within which it is now viewed with reverence and great respect as one of the most powerful plays of the twentieth century. Whilst this shift alters an audience's response in 2017 the significance of Kushner's work is that it acts both as a rich commentary on a contemporary society in crisis yet still manages to resonate without a laboured modern lens. The America it presents may belong to Reagan, but it repeatedly strikes you in the gut not only as a piece of documentary history but as a narrative of universal human suffering, our communal response to hysteria and the intricate relationships that exists between family and friends.
Whilst the underscore to this gay fantasia on national themes is America and its delayed response to the AIDS crisis that cost so many lives, Kushner weaves a loaded and mercilessly tight narrative that harpoons not only the establishment and its intolerance but also the more micro-relationships that buckle under this pressure to offer a patchwork of human life. Heritage and our connection to the past is as important to his characters as the approaching millennium, from which the world threatens to rip itself open. It's exciting and dangerous in both style and scale but it rewards its audience with an embarrassment of riches.
The best type of theatre speaks to you on multiple levels and asks you questions that may feel uncomfortable to answer yet fulfilling to consider. It's a play about how we connect with each other on a human and spiritual level regardless of race, sexuality, religion and political persuasion, how we operate together in a world that's fundamentally unfair and tests our resolve on a daily basis. Superbly presented and punishingly well acted at its greatest moments it grabs your soul and forces you into a vital re-evaluation of all elements of your life.
Marianne Elliot's production is rich and detailed in every respect and ultimately lets the text and an incredible set of performers bring the play to life with a beautiful honesty that's uniquely captivating. Her ability to focus the narrative against the vastness of the Lyttelton stage is commendable and each of these intimate scenes are given space to exist within the wider framework of the play in its familiar epic sense. It finds a stillness that never gets carried away with itself metaphorically, despite the moments that blend philosophical dialogue the whole piece is grounded in a solid truth that provides a vital foundation from which the more expressionistic elements of the play can grow from.
There's a subtle beauty in her style and overall handling of the play that's both overwhelming to take in yet a delight to unpick. She makes meaty work of the angel itself exhausting the skills of her multi-talented puppeteer cast that together create grandeur and pockets a certain magic that reverberates through the action and more than rises to the demands of the text.
Ian MacNeil's design is on first impression underwelmingly stark, both angular and plain in its delivery yet functional at creating environments that manipulate themselves on multiple revolves that allow the vast number of locations to run concurrently. The steel bones of a domed proscenium arch nestle behind, revealed in their finest form towards the conclusion of Perestroika as Prior enters heaven to confront the assembled angels as a chosen prophet. The theatricality is enhanced by the bowels of the Lyttelton stage on full view, beautifully lit to once again allow breadth and space amongst the most compassionately intimate moments that draw us to them.
As an ensemble the cast offer a uniformly strong set of performances that grip and compel throughout. It's a who's-who of contemporary theatrical royalty with a stage that heaves under the weight of authority in each of its central performances that grow throughout the eight-hour running time excelling exponentially with an unbridled sense of committed excellence. Andrew Garfield is crushingly powerful as Prior Walter, the quick-witted protagonist who learns he has AIDS early on in the first half of Millennium Approaches and it is through his eyes that we witness the disease destroying him both physically and mentally. He's sharp, lucid and painfully funny demonstrating a feat of endurance and emotional commitment that's unlikely to be bettered.
Nathan Lane breaks somewhat out of type as Roy Cohn, the despicable lawyer who rejects his homosexuality yet also succumbs to the disease which he attempts to cover as liver cancer in order to protect his secret from his highly conservative world. Haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg his deterioration is carefully plotted and skilfully placed as Lane tears up the stage with his trademark wit and brash physicality, but surprises in finding a quiet tenderness that brings heart to even the most dislikeable of characters.
As the closeted Mormon Joseph Pitt, Russell Tovey puts in his finest stage work to date suitably confused with a stooping, brooding stance from which his personal dilemma is allowed to develop from, finding a forceful angst that grounds Kushner's message. He's on fire in his scenes with Denise Gough who plays his valium-addicted wife Harper who enjoys moments of lucidity mixed with fantasy as her world is challenged and shaken from the inside out. She's unstoppable in every sense, distinct in her mannerisms yet universal in her delivery that confirms her as one of our finest actors of our time and a tour de force at every turn.
As Prior's lover Louis who rejects him following the discovery of his illness James McArdle dangles between neurotic hyperbole and sympathetic melancholia that offers a complex presentation of the different side of the coin. Rather than be repulsed by his knee jerk reaction McArdle manages to keep us on side throughout despite his behaviour, unlocking his character with a gradual and well-paced commitment that shows heart and zeal.
It's brutally funny and the shifts in tone are so successfully managed by both director and cast that you find yourself laughing out loud whilst on the brink of tears. I utterly adored Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize who ricochets between Prior, Joe and Louis offering much-needed doses of realism and sardonic wit that perpetuates the wider themes and grounds the moments of self-indulgence that threaten to make the play too baggy. Susan Brown is perfectly presented in a series of strong and memorable performances ranging from Ethel Rosenberg to Hannah Pitt adding variety and cohesion to the network of voices that carefully fuse together, alongside Amanda Lawrence's exciting turn as the angel itself.
Rarely have I felt so drawn together in a sense of community than throughout this day-long journey that speaks to the themes Kushner wishes to expose. I listened carefully to those around me who found joy in seeing the play 25 years later when AIDS carries a completely different weight within the theatrical community and beyond and the resonance that this work finds with people of different ages and backgrounds is its real trump card and justifies its classic status. The academic David Roman has written about the idea of 'critical generosity' surrounding the response to the original production, but in this new context that generosity is well-earned.
As a play with a rich performance and production history the National Theatre's revival feels as necessary as oxygen and champions the venue's place at the forefront of British and indeed international theatre experience. A rare marriage between a genuinely terrific play with a first-rate production and knock-out cast it offers theatrical perfection in the deepest sense. Richly spiritual and wholeheartedly triumphant this is a production that will sit on your heart and run through your mind for the rest of your life. Beyond unmissable.
What the Press Said...
"This eight-hour fantasia is revealed as both a document of the Aids crisis and an enduringly relevant commentary on US politics."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"dazzling, quirky and often downright bizarre"
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"This is a courageous revival, underpinned by piercingly authentic performances."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard