THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Angels in America
By Tony Kushner
NT Lyttleton, National Theatre, London SE1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
After Hamilton, this is the second biggest theatrical event of the year and like Hamilton the whole run of this sold out in seconds. There are day seats however and it will be broadcast to cinemas worldwide (Part I on 20th and Part II on 27th July) as part of NT Live: ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
The stellar cast and having Marianne Elliott (War Horse, Curious Incident) at the helm fuelled the frenzy of anticipation. The good news is that it more than lives up to the hype.
The challenge for Elliott and designer Ian MacNeil in reviving it 25 years after it had its auspicious debut here at the National Theatre was to demonstrate why it still matters. Would it now appear as a period piece and does it merit the label classic? The production proves it is a classic and also how depressingly prescient Kushner was about the circular rebounding of the radical right.
25 years ago the Aids crisis was still raw and for young people coming to this today it will be hard for them to really appreciate just how marginalised the gay community was then. That crisis tore away hard won social and sexual freedoms gained in the 70s but in the process it too radicalised a generation, often reluctantly.
As this play opens we see how tortured, liberal, intellectual, Louis (James McArdle) flees in panic when confronted by the sheer horror of nursing his very sick lover Prior (Andrew Garfield) while a new-in-town Mormon couple Joe (Russell Tovey) and Harper (Denise Gough) come to terms with New York and themselves. Tovey (an actor on a roll) brilliantly captures the pain of the closeted and Gough manages to bring much light and shade to difficult role of the troubled, pill popping Harper. The other plot strand involves a real life character, the notorious New York lawyer Roy Cohn, who was protégé of Senator McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover and was at the nexus of right wing Republican power in New York and Washington for three decades. He seeks to implant Joe, who has caught his eye, as his operative at the Department of Justice so he can destroy those seeking to have him disbarred. He too denies his sexuality and bullies his doctor into ensuring his condition is described as liver cancer. For him all that matters is 'clout' and gays and minorities are losers. He's a coiled spring of resentment whose sense of empowerment is a shallow husk and of course once weakened he is soon turned on by his many enemies.
The whole ensemble here are remarkable. Nathan Lane brings such ferocity to Cohn that the audience is left reeling from the scorching wit and bitter vituperation. This is a man who even sets traps for people appearing in his hallucinations. His victim is the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he had helped send to the electric chair. He is tended to by the black nurse Belize (who also nurses Prior) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett brings both sass and intelligence to this superbly written part.
Then there is Andrew Garfield who reveals exactly why he's become a movie star. He owns this part and delightfully goes full throttle camp, wafting round like a skinny but intelligent Norma Desmond. There's so much touching detail in his performance from the tender foot massage he gives Louis or the instinctive girlish screams when cornered by the Angel. He illuminates the whole palette of emotions such a young man would go through and his touching performance will linger long in your memory.
Kushner's genius here was not to merely document this plague (as plays like The Normal Heart or As Is did) but to give it a metaphorical resonance by framing the story around the idea of angels, all knowing but ultimately powerless creatures. The angel conjured up in Prior's medication fuelled hallucinations reveals that they've been abandoned by God and so warn against the human imperative of change. Kushner's point, albeit laboured, is that only we can make things happen, we can't wait for angels.
What makes the piece so thrilling is the seamless blending of naturalism and the fantastical elements all embellished by a delightfully scathing wit. It does descend into wooliness at times in some of the angel sections but nevertheless these are enlivened by Amanda Lawrence as a particularly scrawny angel who emerges from a chrysalis like a fledgling Phyllis Diller. Lawrence plays multiple roles and steals every scene she is in.
For a play with such epic ambition at its core it remains a strong yet simple narrative which holds the audience captive. The two parts run just short of 8 hours including 4 intervals and they can be seen separately or in one day.
You'd do it for the latest box set binge-watch wouldn't you, so why not for the theatre?