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Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 6 May 2017

Review: Angels In America at the National Theatre

April 11 - August 19

A tenacious celebration of life: Brendan Macdonald watches all eight hours of Marianne Elliott’s much-hyped revival of Tony Kushner’s two-part gay fantasia on national themes.

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

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

After the near eight-hour marathon of Kushner’s two-part Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the Lyttleton Theatre resembles a plane at the end of a never-ending flight. A night flight to San Francisco, perhaps. Lived in, littered, and thick with traces of lingering sweat. It’s an indicator of what underpins Kushner’s vast, sprawling epic: a communal movement, often exhausting, where the key feature is the voyage itself. We have gone somewhere, even if that somewhere is not yet known. We have lived, and lived together.

As a disclaimer, I love this play. When I think about it, I think in broad luxurious strokes. I think of its poetry, its vitality, its ability to arouse, and the heady highs it evokes. It’s both ordinary and mythic, funny and tragic, urgent and timeless. To me, it is bold creation, grand design, legend, camp, and high drama. Kushner fills his theatre with thresholds – barriers and potentials – all at the edge of revelation.

Some revelations I had while watching:

Angels feels shockingly relevant today. Yes, it’s set in the mid-1980s during the Reagan administration at the height of the AIDS crisis, and the urgency of the epidemic may not seem as proximate now as it did, say, during the first production at the National in 1993. But some lines are eerily apt to Trump’s post-millennial America. Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn, dying in a hospital of AIDS, spits out the words “That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm”. This is said, in a bitter twist of fate, on the same day the House passed legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Lane’s Cohn is at his most reflective in this moment, recognising that the kind of America he champions is the same America that abandons the sick, and neglects the vulnerable and marginalised, which now includes him. It’s relevant to mention here that Cohn and Trump’s relationship was an intimate and even apprentice-like one. So, as we watch Cohn die miserably, his vision of America remains very much alive.

This and the many iconic moments of the play are elegantly underlined in Marianne Elliott’s masterful production. It adheres faithfully to Kushner’s request that the wires show, that the magic always be rooted in theatricality. Implicit in Elliott’s vision is the understanding that this is a fantasia – a thing composed of different forms and styles – and she embraces the richly textured world that Angels demands, one of devastating tragedy that remains resiliently funny.

Millennium Approaches, the first and more tidily written of the two plays, is governed by three rotating turntables that spin through the scenes. But once the Angel arrives, this ordered world is breached. Winged by a chorus of shadows, Amanda Lawrence wears a torn American flag as a skirt and sports nest-like hair. She’s rattled yet sharp, awkward yet intimidating, and the shadows of the Angel become the scene-shifting stage-hands in Perestroika.

Neon lights in varied colours provide continuity through both parts; it’s a smart evocation of late-80s America as well as a gesture to the elemental. And the moments of magic, the burning aleph and ladder to heaven, are executed with conviction. The only peculiarity is the mechanical domed ceiling, a looming figure in the first part and a puzzling structure of Heaven in the second.

But staging aside, Angels is an actor-driven epic, and most of the performances are spectacular. Lane as Cohn is utterly magnetic, churning and ablaze until his very last breath. Denise Gough as Harper, an overly medicated and deeply unhappy Mormon, is also captivating, her sarcasm imbued with longing and hope. Her scenes with Prior – though few and far between – are deeply honest. But perhaps Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Susan Brown are the real standouts; their characters are the stoic pillars that support the others, each infinitely complex, authentic, and endearing.

Some performances, however, are more confused. Garfield’s Prior is at first overly affected, a self-conscious performance of fey-ness that feels thinly drawn. He redeems himself in Perestroika while, inversely, McArdle’s Louis makes a strong start but loses steam in the second part. Russell Tovey’s Joe Pitt is a modest portrayal, albeit with some accent issues.

Angels forces the corporeal and celestial into the same space. This conflict between the theoretical and the physical is messy, and parts of it should be dirty. Blood, shit, and salt water spill onto the stage, bodily fluids that are both physical and metaphorical manifestations. Even the script is unstable, with a few optional scenes in Perestroika (both excised here).

While executed with precision and elegance, at times this production feels sterile and too smooth. For a show so mired in issues of sex and sexuality, there’s a considerable lack of sensuality. Louis’s seduction of Joe is bland and awkward, and the fight scene between them equally lacks passion. Prior and Louis, as well, are not entirely convincing as a couple, estranged or otherwise.

But still, Angels is momentous and moving. And most importantly, it means something. Fuelled by fear of progress and its potential for destruction, the Angel demands Prior make humanity stop. To stop moving, to close doors (even build walls?). But, as Prior points out, “Anti-Migration – that’s so feeble”. Finding comfort in stasis not only lacks imagination, but ignores the fact that stasis is a false prophecy. How can we stand still? How do we stop America changing? Make it great again? That would require a forfeiture of life itself, in all its complexity and contradiction. And if nothing else, Angels is a tenacious celebration of life.

Marianne Elliott’s Angels in America is brilliant enough. It’s masterful, yes, but it’s not daring. It lacks the sort of courageous pretentiousness that is the cornerstone of Kushner’s monumental work. Bolder choices could have been made. Given the breadth of its story, the considerable hype leading up to this show, and that fully fledged productions of Angels are so rare, it’s worthy to note that Elliott’s revival only just soars to meet expectations. We do go somewhere, and it is together, but not quite to that high, unreachable note on which freedom lies.

Angels In America is at the National Theatre until August 19th. Millennium Approaches will be broadcast live on July 20th, and Perestroika will be broadcast live on July 27th. For more details, click here.

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Brendan Macdonald is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Angels In America at the National Theatre Show Info


Directed by Marianne Elliott

Written by Tony Kushner

Choreography by Roby Graham

Cast includes Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, Russell Tovey, Stuart Angell, Susan Brown, Laura Caldow, Amanda Lawrence, James McArdle, Becky Namgauds, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Stan West, Lewis Wilkins

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