It’s funny how sometimes you go through a period when you come across the same theme again and again. Recently I’ve seen a new production of the musical Rent, and I’ve also been reading Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, both of which deal with the AIDS crisis, with particular focus on the USA. And now comes Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s 1993 masterpiece, subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, that explores that same crisis in the context of the Reagan administration, viewed through the eyes of a bunch of New Yorkers.
I was a child when the original production of Angels in America graced the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, and it wasn’t until the Theatre’s 50th anniversary performance a couple of years ago that I actually heard of it. I was very interested in seeing this new production at the Lyttelton – but so, it seems, was everyone else, and I ended up stalking the NT website for weeks on end searching for returns. Eventually I managed to secure tickets for both parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, albeit a month or so apart.
The play – although it’s in two parts I really see it as one whole – has a hallucinatory dreamlike quality. Under Marianne Elliott’s direction the first part is more enclosed, with walls and barriers separating the different characters, before expanding into openness as the play becomes even more surreal. We are transported, via Ian MacNeil’s set design, to locations as banal as the park and the hospital and as abstract and impressive as Antarctica and heaven itself. The entrance of an actual angel (Amanda Lawrence) – frightening and impressive, a masterpiece of puppetry, as befits a production overseen by the director of War Horse – at the end of the first part is a glorious coup de théâtre.
The cast do full justice to their roles. Andrew Garfield is superb as Prior, the play’s emotional heart. Diagnosed with AIDS at the beginning of the play and faced with almost certain death, he is abandoned by his lover Lewis (an excellent James McArdle), who embarks upon a relationship with Joe (a great Russell Tovey), a Republican Mormon who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality. Joe’s wife Harper (powerful yet subtle Denise Gough) has her own demons to fight, facing mental illness and abandonment by her husband. Meanwhile, Joe’s boss, Roy Cohn (a character who existed in real life, here played by Nathan Lane in a role hugely different from usual), bullying, power-hungry and selfish, is himself diagnosed with AIDS but is in denial, claiming to be suffering from liver cancer. He is nursed by Belize (a charismatic and unforgettable Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). A special mention must go to Susan Brown, playing Joe’s mother, who turns up in New York to confront her son and ends up befriending Prior instead. She also plays other roles including Ethel Rosenberg and the oldest Bolshevik; her versatility and talent are impressive.
Surreal, hallucinatory and thoughtful, the play is both a record of its time and a timeless exploration of people questioning their place in the world. The sense of impending doom that overshadows most of the play is a familiar one in the 2017 political climate. Angels in America is a play not to miss. If you can’t catch it at the theatre, go to one of the cinema screenings. It’s a modern American classic and it’s unforgettable.