The sky darkened, a loud crashing was heard and there it is, flapping it's mighty wings and pointing the way to the future.... yes, the National Theatre's much-awaited revival of Tony Kushner's mighty two-part play ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES has landed at the Lyttelton Theatre. Could it live up to all the hype generated?
ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES - the first part of Tony Kushner's reaction to both the onset of the AIDS pandemic as well as President Reagan's refusal to even acknowledge the crisis for four years after it's first appearance - was first seen in a 1990 workshop in Los Angeles and had it's world premiere the following year in San Francisco. At the same time, a copy of the text found it's way to Richard Eyre, then Artistic Director of the National Theatre, who rushed it to director Declan Donnellan.
It opened at the Cottesloe in 1992 and I was dazzled by the sweep of Kushner's imagination and innate grasp of what makes theatre magic: characters who slowly draw you into their lives, great dialogue and stage imagery that haunts you. It later won the Critic's Circle and Olivier Awards for Best New Play. In 1993, Donnellan directed PERESTROIKA, again at the Cottesloe, in repertory with MILLENNIUM. It was sold out for it's entire run and I never got to experience the second play onstage.
Ten years later both plays were filmed for HBO by Mike Nichols with a starry cast of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker, and while enjoying it as well as finally seeing PERESTROIKA, I felt it was something that needed to be experienced in a theatre again - I still have an unwatched dvd! So when it was announced that Marianne Elliott was to direct a National Theatre revival with the starry line-up of Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Denise Gough, I knew that tickets HAD to be bought.
The National went into a HAMILTON-style booking period, no doubt wishing to control any third-party re-selling, and coming up with five monthly ticket ballots to those unable to get them through the mailing list and general on-sale. But that is all in the past now... the plays are on and again one reels from the National at the end of both plays - or both on the same day for real die-hards - with one's theatrical blood racing at the breadth of both Kushner's vision and Elliott's productions.
MILLENNIUM APPROACHES is the better-constructed of the plays; Kushner introduces his seven main characters and then sets them spinning away from their carefully-constructed lives as they confront both the AIDS virus and their place in 1980's America. Interestingly both plays start with monologues from minor characters which, in retrospect, set the agenda for each play: in PERESTROIKA the oldest Bolshevik alive harangues his comrades for straying from the path of Communist Theory, while in MILLENNIUM APPROACHES an elderly rabbi prepares to bury a Jewish woman who journeyed from a shtetl to Brooklyn. Spoilers ahead...
Prior and Louis are lovers in New York where Louis is an over-intellectualizing clerk in a law firm. Sitting together after Louis' grandmother's funeral, Prior tells Louis he has just been diagnosed with the HIV virus. Louis attempts to be supportive as his lover's symptoms worsen but eventually he walks out, leaving Prior devastated and increasingly paranoid from hearing a disembodied voice warning him he will be visited soon. Prior's only support comes from his oldest friend Belize, a black nurse in an AIDS unit who also has a jaundiced eye and withering put-downs.
Pious Mormon Joe is a lawyer in the same legal office as Louis but is being fast-tracked for advancement to the State Department in Washington DC by New York's most-feared lawyer Roy Cohn, secure of his place in history through his involvement with the anti-communist trials in the 1950s. Joe however cannot obey his father-figure as his wife Harper is wrestling with irrational fears and Valium abuse that have led to agoraphobia and delusions.
Harper however realizes that it is the creeping knowledge that Joe is actually homosexual that has driven her to despair and when she finally confronts him, he admits that he is struggling with his sexuality. Meanwhile Roy Cohn is told by his doctor that he has been diagnosed with HIV which sends Roy into a vicious rage, threatening the doctor with legal action if he says it is anything but liver cancer.
Co-workers Louis and Joe realize they are attracted to each other, leading the conflicted Joe to call his mother Hannah in Salt Lake City and tell her he is gay which makes her so angry she quickly sells her home to finance her to fly to New York to get Joe and Harper reunited... but Harper is lost in a delusional state, wandering the streets of Brooklyn thinking she is in Antarctica.
Roy Cohn's health takes a turn for the worse and he is admitted to hospital where Belize is his night nurse and proves to be the one person unafraid of him. Roy is also haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the 1950s woman accused of spying who Cohn made sure was found guilty and executed. The devastating climax occurs when Prior's paranoia is made flesh when an Angel crashes into his apartment and tells him to prepare as "The Great Work begins".
By the end of MILLENNIUM I was almost breathless with the pure theatrical magic conjured by Marianne Elliott's sweeping production and the bravura performances; the appearance of the bedraggled Angel - looking more like a scrutty pigeon than an ambassador of God - is such a coup de theatre that you leave the theatre buzzing with excitement and aching for the second part... we had a whole fortnight to wait!
PERESTROIKA does not have the narrative drive of MILLENNIUM and sometimes I was aware that it was treading water and crying out for an editor but as soon as those thoughts settle Kushner pulls you back into the lives of his characters and you are hooked again.
Harper is rescued by mother-in-law Hannah from her delusional wanderings and camps out at the Mormon Visitor Centre where Hannah is volunteering, Joe and Louis are in a tentative relationship, Roy Cohn is growing sicker despite having a private stash of the wonder-drug AZT which disgusts Belize who knows of patients who have been deprived of it by Cohn's heavy-handed string-pulling, and Prior is a changed man after his visit from The Angel.
Prior recounts to the incredulous Belize what happened; The Angel told Joe that God has turned his back on both Heaven and the world as mankind has kept evolving, exploring and moving ever-forward and refusing to stay fixed and afraid. God's actions have left the Angels as mere lookers-on but they have selected Prior to be a Prophet to deliver the message to mankind to stop moving and then maybe God will return.
Prior stalks the streets of New York dressed in black struggling with his Prophet status and finds a kindred lost soul in Harper when he visits the Mormon centre. Prior has neglected his health and collapses, establishing an unexpected friendship with Hannah who advises him that one should fight against Angels' bad advice as well as welcome their good advice.
Belize delights in telling Louis that his new boyfriend's father-figure is the hated Roy Cohn, the lovers fight and Joe leaves after physically attacking Louis. Joe visits Roy in hospital and attempts to explain why he has left his wife only for his mentor to hypocritically abuse him for being gay, finally waking Joe up to Roy's callousness. After learning that the Law Society have finally disbarred him for his many years of corruption, Roy dies alone. Belize summons Louis to the deathbed as he is the only Jew he knows and makes him say the Kaddish over the body, movingly prompted in his ignorance of the words by the ghost of Ethel.
The Angel appears to a recovered Prior and Hannah in his hospital room and he wrestles it into submission, The Angel finally relents and lets Prior ascend the neon ladder to Heaven which looks like a run-down operations room, staffed by the other ineffectual Angels. Prior relinquishes his Prophet status, acknowledging the implications of becoming a mere mortal again but telling them that mankind must be allowed to keep moving ahead and discovering new possibilities.
Joe attempts a reconciliation with Harper but she refuses, she is leaving NY to discover a new life in San Francisco, alone. Louis and Belize are by Prior's bedside when he wakes from his dream of Heaven - Kushner slyly gives Prior Dorothy's dialogue from the epilogue of THE WIZARD OF OZ - and reveal that they have Cohn's secret supply of AZT to aid Prior's health. Four years later Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah visit the Angel of Bethesda fountain in Central Park and Prior addresses the audience, telling of his belief in the angels who walk among the living every day and that we must prepare for the future...The Great Work continues.
The two play's combined length of 7 hours 30 minutes slide past unnoticed and this is primarily down to Marianne Elliott's astounding direction - at all times you are engrossed in her sleek, filmic production and although there are the occasional longueurs (in PERESTROIKA in particular) you never lose your fascination with the main characters and the world they inhabit. Elliott's ability to move from the Manhattan scenes to the fantasy worlds just within an arm's length of the characters is consistent throughout and never feels jarring or contrived, it's a very humane vision of the play's plains of existence.
Ian MacNeil's huge set might be a bit tricksy at times with it's neon-edged little boxes that turn and re-form themselves for interiors but again the scope of imagination is to be applauded. Paule Constable's wonderful lighting designs effortlessly convey Kushner's worlds within and without with elegance and style. A word too for the excellent sound design of Ian Dickinson.
Elliott has also an astonishing cast to bring her production to expansive life, a real ensemble but all delivering on-the-money performances; Nathan Lane is the glittering dark malevolent heart of the production as the venal Roy Cohn and as with all well-written villains, you cannot help but be drawn to his unforgiving personality. He perfectly captures the larger-than-life personality that would be the magnet for the idealistic Joe but also takes no prisoners in his titanic rages that kills the soul of anyone in it's path. As his sphere of influence shrinks from all of Manhattan to a tiny bed in an AIDS ward you cannot help but feel pity for a man who was in such denial of himself and his deeds.
The biggest surprise was Andrew Garfield who made Prior, for all his self-pity, a constantly evolving character, making his fear and bafflement at his physical and celestial destinies all too real while also finding room for the character's humour to shine out. Russell Tovey was a surprise too as the closeted, hesitant Joe and was unafraid to play up the character's dangerously ambivalent and passively cruel undertow. Seeing the shows a fortnight apart meant we had two Louises - James McArdle for MILLENNIUM and his understudy John Hastings for PERESTROIKA. McArdle's banked-down performance took time to warm to but by the time of the excruciatingly funny scene where Louis ties himself in ever-tighter politically correct knots with an increasingly furious Belize he had me onside. Hastings gave a more vulnerable reading of the character and while maybe not having the level of ability as the others, still was effective as the contrite Louis aware of his failings.
Another genuine surprise was Denise Gough's deliciously spiky Harper, a potentially irritating character who in Gough's hands was anything but, her painful life with the glacial Joe all to realistically played. She found the mordant humour in her character too and in her final scene she touched universal truths with Harper's reflections on looking down at the world from a plane. The real scene-stealing performance though was from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, a FIERCE queen and the one character who can tell the truth to whoever he meets. He really was quite, quite glorious.
Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence between them created a rich collection of characters: Brown travelled a continent-wide arc as Hannah Pitt, Joe's conformist Mormon mother, who slowly softens to become an understanding woman but she also delivered telling performances as Rabbi Chemelwitz, Ethel Rosenberg and Roy's exasperated doctor. Lawrence made a memorable Angel as well as the friendly HIV unit nurse Emily and Hannah's Mormon friend Sister Ella. It was a delight too to see the main cast chip in telling cameos: Garfield was also Louis' butch leather pick-up in Central Park who still lived with his parents, Gough was Roy's State Department ally Martin Heller while Lane and Tovey were a hoot as Prior's ancestors sent by The Angel to prepare it's way.
Time and again, the plays proved that there never was a better time to revive them: all Joe's breathless enthusiasm for Reagan making America feel good about itself again, the politics of greed over empathy, Harper's paranoia of a world not caring about the environment and most frighting of all, that the abrasive, vengeful Roy Cohn really was Donald Trump's legal advisor during the 1970s and 1980s.
The run is sold out but there are still two ballots to go which will give you access to book specially reserved seats - https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/angels-ballot-presented-by-delta - and the plays will be screened as part of the NT Live theatre-to-cinema project http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/61490-angels-in-america-part-one-millennium-approaches
Try and see them however you can - see them for the amazing production, the remarkable cast and for Kushner's dazzling, angry, funny and ultimately profound masterpiece.