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Features Published 10 May 2017

Angels in America: A Homecoming

Ten years after last seeing Tony Kushner's epic play cycle (and after writing a PhD thesis on it) Emily Garside writes on why going to the National Theatre's Angels in America feels like coming home.
Emily Garside
Jason Isaacs and Stephen Dillane in the 1993 National Theatre premiere of Angels in America. Photo: John Haynes

Jason Isaacs and Stephen Dillane in the 1993 National Theatre premiere of Angels in America. Photo: John Haynes

It’s a homecoming for Kushner’s Angels. Although it’s ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ of the American variety, it officially premiered at the National Theatre. And equally, although it was commissioned by a combination of an American National Endowment for the Arts award and the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, The National Theatre played a key role in developing the play. Artistic director Richard Eyre read the play almost by accident, finding himself stuck at home, and immediately sent it to Declan Donnellan, one half of Cheek By Jowl theatre company – they then collaborated to bring it to the National’s stage. It was a fractious process. Kushner wrote and re-wrote the play as they rehearsed, and after many years of working with long-dead writers, Donnellan struggled to contend with this very much living, and very involved playwright.

The National Theatre’s ‘world premiere’ of both Millennium and Perestroika was won on a technicality- the Broadway production should have opened simultaneously, but it was delayed by technical issues (Angels are stubborn in their flying) and so on November 20th, 1993, Parts 1 and 2 officially opened in London, three days ahead of their Broadway counterparts. British theatre took to it, with reviews that praised the scale and scope of the work, while Broadway critics including Frank Rich made the journey to see the British version of what would quickly become an American classic.

In its world, men talk unapologetically about AIDS and homosexuality, and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. Almost immediately following its opening, critics and academics were canonising Kushner’s play as a turning point in American drama, both for its challenging content but also for its epic, innovative approach to American drama which had for decades before been mainly rooted in the domestic and naturalistic.

Angels In America, National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

Angels In America, National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

Nearly 25 years later, is the play dated? Its issues – from AIDS to Cold War politics – might seem to have receded into the past, and plays like London Road and People, Places and Things show how much the National Theatre has experimented with form and content in the intervening years. But then the play was announced a year ago, nobody could know we’d have an American president and British prime minister who genuinely longed to return to the days of Reagan and Thatcher, or that the threat of war with Russia or nuclear fear like the Cold War would enter our day-to-day lives again.

The themes fit more broadly, too. We have only to hear Louis say ‘You’re scared. So am I. Everyone is in the land of the free. God help us all’, or to hear Joe’s almost blind defence of his voting choice – ‘Ronald Reagan is a good man’ – to feel we know these characters. And, any question of whether the politics apply only to an American audience is surely silenced when audience applause stops the show following Nathan Stewart Jarret’s “There’s a nursing shortage, I’m in a Union, I’m real scared”. Elsewhere, the sentiments on race in America feel shockingly current, and though holes in the ozone layer aren’t such a threat, the themes of environmental apocalypse still resonate. It may now be 17 years since the new Millennium, not 15 before as in the play, but the world of Kushner’ America, and indeed the world, are familiar.

And what of the issue of AIDS? The idea that AIDS is now an issue that is ‘over’ is a dangerously prevalent one, as infection rates rise and a cure is still elusive. And the play also acts as a memorial to the many lost to AIDS. Kushner was writing as a response to the decimation of a community, his community, and revisiting that time is a theatrical lesson to those now too young to remember the fear of ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital, if I go I won’t come back’ as Prior himself says. Prior also declares, at the close ‘We won’t die silent deaths anymore’. The play now feels like a call to make that true, by continuing to tell these stories.

So, the announcement that Angels would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ might suggest. But Angels has also come back bigger, taking the larger traditional proscenium arch space of the Lyttleton instead of the intimate and adaptable space of the Cottesloe. It’s also brought a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming as a triumphant return that promises to defy the previous production in scope and scale.

And it does deliver on that promise. The increased scale serves the play’s epic proportions, and Elliot’s direction takes something that has already been so lauded, discussed and dissected and makes it fresh again.

Denise Gough (Harper) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Mr Lies) in Millennium Approaches. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Denise Gough (Harper) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Mr Lies) in Millennium Approaches. Photo: Helen Maybanks

In Millennium Approaches realism rules, and it’s stylishly put together. Revolving stages bring characters in and out of each others’ spaces, and the clever positioning of the two key couples- Louis and Prior, Harper and Joe- demonstrate their stories’ parallels and bleed their lives together. It is not the ‘pared down’ staging of Kushner’s original stage directions, but it works. Millennium belongs to the characters, and so to the actors. Andrew Garfield quickly proves he is a natural Prior, eliciting warmth and sympathy as well as wielding a razor-sharp wit. He is supported by an understated but powerful performance by James McArdle as his struggling partner Louis– he is a tough character to love at times, but making the audience understand him adds strength to the conflicted narrative about love and loyalty that Kushner creates.

Meanwhile Joe and Harper Pitt (Tovey and Gough) offer a sharp often raw insight into a marriage being torn apart by the issues each are facing- Tovey plays Joe as wide eyed and puppy like, with an endearing innocence, while Gough though showing Harper’s struggles, is never weak, showing defiance and fight as she struggles with herself and the world around her. Meanwhile Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn holds the audience in the palm of his hand with his wit, echoing much of Cohn himself in that manner, but he also holds a darker edge always simmering underneath that makes him both believable and as threatening as the man on which this fictionalised version is based. Funnier, wittier- if we dare- than Lane- in many scenes is Nathan Stewart Jarret. As Belize, Roy’s nurse and Prior’s former Drag partner, he is funny and sharp but also offers heart in moments of sadness for his friend, and an ability to be humane to the most viscous of humans in Cohn. This piece is truly and ensemble piece, and although the ‘star names’ and central characters are rightly praised none of them would deliver without each other.

Millennium Approaches is fast-paced, directed at speed it often feels, and moves the audiences through the narrative of these central characters, with wit and often shocking moments of realism, and hear-wrenchingly honest writing.

And then, The Angel appeared.

The daring approach Elliot has taken to staging the Angel, possibly the most difficult question in staging this piece, shows the confidence of a director at the top of her game- the audience thinks they know that Angel. The image of her crashing through the ceiling is probably one of the most famous from the original, and every production since. ‘Very Steven Spielberg’ Prior says just before she arrives, except if it happens as we’d expect, it isn’t. And Elliot knows that. What she delivers instead was jaw-droppingly clever, not just for that one ‘wow’ moment but in how we see the Angel, and indeed who the Angel is for the rest of the play. The arrival of the Angel steers Millennium into Part 2, Perestroika – a sign of a shift in the world of the play, and the theatricality used to get there.

James McArdle (Louis) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Perestroika. Photo: Helen Maybanks

James McArdle (Louis) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Perestroika. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Angels is both one play in two parts and two separate plays, symbiotic but distinct. Perestroika is a theatrical piece, but not without its moments of honest emotional realism, and that is the gift that is this piece a challenging but rewarding veering between the two pulling the audience along with it. And the direction, more and more experimental, abstract is a gift to it. It’s also a challenge to the audience, asking them not only to focus on what is already an endurance test of a performance, but also to accept a radically different style, as naturalism gives way to Brechtian Epic and experimental approaches. Again, it’s a confidence of a director to take things this far, but also an acknowledgement that audiences are intelligent, and will engage if you deliver. And Perestroika delivers. The idea that this section of the play is rebuilt from the debris of Millennium is played with on stage, with debris of the previous act surrounding the actors. Mounting confusion and conflict in the play is mirrored by layers of set that stretch the length of the stage. Among this, the symbolism and layers of meaning are also simply beautiful set pieces which give reason for increasing the scale of the play. As the play is built up, theatrics grow grander, Prior ascends to heaven, we meet the Angels, and like a rug being pulled we realise the world of the play has also been stripped back, until embracing its Brechtian roots, it’s simply a handful of actors on stage, addressing the audience.

The play ends on a quiet note, with that simple address to the audience ‘The Great Work Begins’. And returns to the power of Kushner’s writing. From Prior’s final plea to the Angels for ‘More life’ to his instructions, and ‘blessing’ to the audience, it is a turning of the world of the play back to the audience, after hours of endurance, theatrical spectacle and emotional turmoil, the audience is challenged one more time– to take that back into the world with them. Understanding the power of that, and returning it to Kushner’s words alone. And in this moment despite the grandiose politics, epic storytelling and the subtitle of Gay Fantasia on National Themes it is apparent that this is a play about people, and humanity. It might be 1985 at the start of the play, but these are people we all identify with- struggling with life, illness, relationships and finding their place in an increasingly complex world. 25 years on, the words, and the characters ring just as true. And as Kushner and Elliot turn the world of the play back on the audience, it’s an emotional moment taking a piece of that world, and the edict of ‘More life’ and it’s imperative to keep moving, keep fighting whatever the battle, out into the world again.

For me, returning to Angels in America was always going to be an emotional experience. Ten years after the last production I’d seen, after writing a PhD thesis on the play, specifically its production at the National. So many reservations came with that- would I now be so intellectually invested in the play, that I couldn’t engage with it emotionally? More importantly would the production itself be everything I wanted it to be?

At the end of Part 1 I found myself leaning on the railings by the Thames, trying to compose myself and my thoughts enough to move. At the end of Part 2, I’m sure I had forgotten how to breathe for a while. And days later, still I can’t quite wrap my head around it all.

In one respect, I managed to experience it as it’s pure theatrical joy, and lose myself in the piece as if it were fresh again- a combination of exactly what I wanted and what I never expected- lines I thought I knew completely turned on their head and completely perfect. In Part 1 my love for the casting was cemented by Prior and Louis’ first scene together, where Prior reveals his KS lesions, right then I knew both the characters and their relationship was pitch perfect, and by the end of Part 1, when they share a stolen heartbreakingly beautiful moment dancing to Moon River, I had everything I’d needed from the play: the thematically innovative and the visceral heart breaking soul of it. The play, the production outdid all the intellectualising when it was on stage in front of me-on the other I gained new insight into a play I thought I knew every aspect of by hearing it fresh again.

It’s hard to explain just how ingrained these plays are in my consciousness. Over the last 10 years or so, those words have become a part of me. The real Bethesda Fountain, where the play ends, is Prior’s favourite place in the Universe. It’s mine too. I’ve gone back so many times, over so many years and it’s back, on stage where it all started in front of me again. And the words of the Epilogue, and indeed Prior’s invocation to the Angels, these are words I’ve absorbed, words I’ve taken on separate from the play. I knew hearing them again would be emotional, but it also felt like coming home.

At the end of the play, with Prior’s quietly powerful ‘The Great Work Begins’, the lights go down. Before they have chance to come up again the audience erupts. And for me that was something too, a moment of ‘It’s not just me, it’s really not just me, that was magical’. The Great Work Begins indeed.

Angels in America is on at the National Theatre until 19th August 2017, and will be screened in cinemas nationally as part of NT Live. More info here.

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