Angels in America – By Tony Kushner – Part One: Millennium Approaches & Part Two: Perestroika
Tony Kushner’s much anticipated epic 1980’s drama Angels in America, ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, which first cast its spell 26 years ago has opened at the National Theatre, written in two parts and cumulating in nearly 8 hours of extraordinary, vivid and riveting theatre. Seeing both productions in one day, I was a little concerned I might not manage to stay the course fully alert, but I need not have feared as Part One, Millennium Approaches, the more cohesive and of the two plays created such a superb flowing narrative, so that I was hooked and only too ready for Part Two, Perestroika, which was written a little later, in the early 90’s.
Director Marianne Elliott’s expansive, ambitious production doesn’t disappoint, headed up by an impressive cast that includes British movie actor Andrew Garfield, (known for his portrayal of Spiderman), Nathan Lane, (Previously seen in London’s West End as Max Bialystock in The Producers), Denise Gough (who won an Olivier award for her performance in the NT’s People, Places and Things), Russell Tovey (one of the original History Boys), James McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.
The set designed by Ian MacNeil creates forever-changing configurations, with a large dome-like, metal suspended ceiling and neon lights, exploring the depth of the Lyttleton stage, which took us on a journey from New York to Antarctica.
Millennium Approaches is set in 1985; the year President Ronald Regan, began his second term in office, during the grip of cold war and when Regan was implementing his economic policy, dubbed at the time ‘Reganomics”, which involved lowering taxes but cutting social benefits, a political climate has a remarkably chilling resonance to today. The gay scene in New York in the 80’s was in full swing but with AIDS taking its ugly hold (which Regan chose to try and ignore) fear and denial were rife. Perestroika, marks the collapse of Communism, and sets a more fantastical, dark and surreal world, leading the characters into a milieu haunted by guilt, revelations, heaven, hell and angels.
The suitably effete, yet powerfully magnetic Prior Walter, tragically battling with AIDS, is superbly played by Garfield who endows him with a caustic wit and heart rendering passion. Prior is living with partner Louis, a charismatic, somewhat egotistical and infuriating moralist, brilliantly played by McArdle, who riddled with guilt, abandons him in the face of his illness for his own selfish reasons.
Belize, a nurse and a former drag queen, brings a real sense of humanity to the piece, as he supports Prior throughout his journey, touchingly and tremendously portrayed by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.
The magnificent Nathan Lane plays the real villain of the story, the corrupt real life lawyer Roy Cohn, who died of an HIV-related illness, claiming it was liver cancer, having never publically admitted or come to terms with his own homosexuality, and opposed to gay rights until his dying day. Lane perfectly captures this devilish, aggressive and ruthless man who was partly responsible for the death sentence imposed on Ethel Rosenberg, who was convicted and executed for passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. It was Ethel’s ghost (a highly adept Susan Brown) that comes to haunt him on his deathbed and finally, rather touchingly gets him to show some compassion.
Cohn has an endearing relationship with his Mormon employee Joseph Pitt who he longs to father, Russell Tovey makes an excellent, earnest Joe, who is a deeply repressed young man, struggling to face up to his gay desires and trapped in a sexless marriage to valium-addicted Harper, captivatingly played by the brilliant Denise Gough. There was a particularly masterful dual scene between both couples simultaneously ending their relationships amidst guilt and longing.
Amanda Lawrence’s quirky Angel with giant puppet wings provides an eerie premonition for Prior, whilst the crouching dark shadows or are they spreading germs, cleverly manoeuvre both the wings and the set.
Kushner’s text is utterly captivating and doesn’t feel dated or tired in any respect. Elliott has managed to create, amongst the political symbolism, a magical, deeply moving epic tale that reminds us of just how far we have come in the battle with AIDS and with a firm message that life is to be celebrated.
Showing at the Lyttleton, National Theatre until August 17th 2017
National Theatre Live
Part One: Millennium Approaches will be broadcast live to cinemas on 20th July
Part Two: Perestroika will be broadcast live to cinemas on 27th July
Encores to both parts will be in selected cinemas from 4th August