From London, England; ANGELS IN AMERICA, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

by Lynn on July 11, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the National Theatre, London, England.

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Set by Ian MacNeil
Costumes by Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting by Paule Constable
Choreography and movement by Robby Graham
Sound by Ian Dickinson
Puppetry director and movement by Finn Caldwell
Puppet designers, Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes
Illusions by Chris Fisher
Cast: Susan Brown
Andrew Garfield
Denise Gough
Nathan Lane
Amanda Lawrence
James McArdle
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Russell Tovey
Stuart Angell
Laura Caldow
Claire Lambert
Becky Namgauds
Stan West
Lewis Watkins

A blazing play given a dazzling production, that is as timely now as it was 25 years ago.

The Story. When Tony Kushner was 30 years old, for want of something better to do, he wrote Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. It is in two parts. Part One is called Millennium Approaches. Part Two is Perestroika (restructuring). Both parts deal with the Aids epidemic in America from 1985. It examines, relationships, loyalty, politics, malicious manipulation, denial, hope, prophecy, marriage, commitment, truth, health, love and forgiveness.

Part One: Millennium Approaches. Prior Walter and Louis Ironson are a couple. Prior is sick with Aids and Louis is full of despair about the possible loss of his partner. He is also a rather weak man who cannot bear to stay and help Prior and leaves him.

Louis works as a clerk in the Justice Department. He is discovered in the bathroom, sobbing, by Joseph Pitt, an upright, righteous lawyer who works for the Justice Department. Joseph is a Mormon, married to Harper Pitt which is fragile-minded and takes pills. The marriage is in trouble. Joseph’s mentor is Roy M Cohn, a combative, vindictive lawyer (Note: Cohn was the mentor of Donald J. Trump, make of that what you will).

Joseph realizes he is gay but of course can’t bring himself to admit it. He begins a relationship with Louis. Roy Cohn is also suffering from Aids because he’s gay but will sue anyone who says it. Cohn says that he’s a heterosexual man who sleeps with other men. He does not have Aids. He has liver cancer.

While he is in various hospitals and trying to stay alive, Prior imagines he is hearing a winged angel coming to help. The Angel appears at the end of the Act.

Part Two: Perestroika

The Angel calls Prior the Prophet. He is confused and frightened. For all the talk of The Angel, it cannot really help Prior. Roy Cohn is also in the hospital and everyone knows it’s for Aids. He is tended by Belize, a smart-mouthed, carrying nurse who is a friend of Prior’s. No matter his personal feelings about Cohn, Belize tends to Cohn with compassion and honesty. Through bullying, threats and nefarious means, Cohn purloins a huge personal supply of an experimental drug that can help him. (AZT). With equal cunning Belize negotiates some of the vials from Cohn’s stash for Prior, among others.

Relationships become clear and honest in Perestroika. Cohn is dying. He is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg for whose death Cohn was responsible. Prior is saved by the drugs. Harper, fragile though she is, throws Joseph out. Joseph and Louis begin to live together.

The Production. Director Marianne Elliott has created a production of breath-taking scope and yet intimacy. She has such a vision for her productions that always serve the play, yet there is such a particular kind of vocabulary to her direction that you can always tell it’s hers.

Millennium Approaches is a clean, straightforward, yet stylish telling of the story. Ian MacNeil’s sets are ultra-cool and modern. They move on and off silently, efficiently, and are spare. Modules create rooms. They often rise up from trap doors. Edges of the structures are illuminated in Paule Constable’s neon lighting. Her lighting is also distinctive (witness her work on War Horse for example).

Above the set for both parts is a structure that looks like a space-ship of sorts. Not sure what that is. Impressive though.The appearance of The Angel is startling. We hear the flapping of the wings and an echoed voice declaring it is coming. Prior—a wonderful, loose-limbed, frightened, very funny, tenacious Andrew Garfield—is terrified at what is happening but curious. With an explosion of light, there is a sprightly, almost tiny, Amanda Lawrence in white fright wig and a body stocking of shades of grey, held aloft on the shoulders of ‘creatures’, also in grey body-stockings. The creatures are called Angel Shadows. They carry The Angel through the air. The wings are huge and are held and manipulated by two Angel Shadows one on either side of The Angel. The wings are not attached to her body. They separate. The image of this Angel is breath-taking. End of Part One. Whew.

The tone, look and feel of Part Two: Perestroika is different. Now all the scenes and set pieces are changed by the scurrying, spooky Angel Shadows. They are like animals on all fours, in the shadows, lurking. Even the changes of the set are choreographed. An Angel Shadow takes a lamp by holding it and twirling off stage. The set pieces, rooms etc. are now pushed around by the scurrying Angel Shadows. We seem them squatting still in the gloom, ready to move. It’s all done silently, but there is that heightened emotion and foreboding about the whole thing.

Relationships are now set. Cohn is writhing in pain. Ethel sits watching him, smiling. Prior has hallucinations. He sees visions of his ancestors. He also comes to the reality that he is better off without Louis.

The acting from top to bottom is superb. As Roy Cohn, Nathan Lane proves once again that he is not ‘just a brilliant comedian.’ He is fury, bullying, relentless evil. And yet, he earns our compassion. As Harper Pitt, Denise Gough is worn down with insecurity, pills, uncertainty about her husband, and lost. As Louis, James McArdle is a torrent of language, ideas, philosophy, blather and baloney. He is a weak man who leaves his lover, and yet, again, we have compassion. Belize is all sass and sashay when played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. As Joseph Pitt, Russell Tovey is a clean-cut, totally insecure man who is gay and absolutely can’t admit it. This is a wonderful, nuanced actor. Susan Brown plays a patient, smiling Ethel Rosenberg, a wise rabbi, a carrying mother in Hannah Pitt, and a Russian philosopher, wonderfully.

Comment. Tony Kushner’s play is loaded with poetry, esoteric philosophy, a brilliant political mind and a dazzling imagination. The themes of Angels in America are many, various and eye-popping. But at its centre is a play about love and relationships, friendships that are strong. And the play is bursting with compassion. Roy Cohn is just the embodiment of evil, but when he dies, Louis, who is Jewish, is asked to say Kadesh, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. He’s not sure of what to say so he wings it at first (very funny when he throws in the prayer for wine). But then the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appears and stands behind Louis and begins to say the prayer. He doesn’t see Ethel of course, but he ‘hears’ the words of the player and begins to say the words until they both come to the end of the payer. Then Ethel says: ‘Son of a bitch’ and so does Louis. Perfect. Tony Kushner gives Cohn absolution, but also puts in perspective how horrible he was in real life.

This is a huge, brilliant production of a huge brilliant play. Important. Timely.

Continues at the National Theatre until August 19.

Is broadcast on National Theatre Live: July 20, Part One: Millennium Approaches; July 27, Part Two: Perestroika.

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