Angels in America- National Theatre

As Angels in America is a two part play, it seems only right to review it in a two part blog. The first part, detailing my emotional reaction to it, having been the ultimate in over invested (by writing an entire PhD on it) can be found here and indeed if that wasn’t enough, some thoughts on my PhD and the plays it’s on can also be found here . 

The play has flown home to the National, where it was staged 25 years ago (as the World Premiere in fact). And in a world where Reaganism now looks like a moderate American political approach, the world of 1985 America seems not so distant after all. Equally troublesome and relevant are the remarks on race that Belize (Nathan Stewart Jarret) makes throughout that could have been written yesterday. Known best as an AIDS play, we may have moved on in terms of treatment, but stigma and indeed infection rates continue, and even without the play is just as relevant as a memorial to that time, to the people we lost, as it is a warning for today.  Elsewhere the commentary on homophobia- internalised and elsewhere remains sadly relevant, and Kushner’s observations on mental health through Harper seem now actually ahead of their time. Finally though, although it is the ‘Gay Fantasia’ of the title, this is a play about people, and there’s a little something of all of us in Kushner’s characters.  

Leading the star-filled cast is Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Emotionally played to the core, from up close an often-painful watch as he goes through not just the physical trials but faces Prior’s emotional challenges (and a few angels). It’s emotional, granted often loud, anguished and at times outlandish (drag can be a drag after all) but it’s always honest to the character, and serves the play not the actor. Likewise, Nathan Lane, no stranger to stealing a scene for better or worse, pitches Roy almost perfectly. The humour that was a given is delivered dead on, but there is a danger that lurks beneath that is frankly terrifying. Meanwhile Denise Gough delivers the kind of sensitive but ultimately tour de force performance as Harper as you’d expect. Never weak but still showing all the vulnerabilities of Harper, she unravels only to build her up again, and it feels like a triumphant battle won to see the change in character across the play. It’s a part in the wrong hands that could slip into irritating, certainly into weak and unsympathetic, Gough handles Harper perfectly- pitching her pain, delusion and frustration but never allowing her to be a victim. 

Easy to overlook alongside Andrew Garfield is James McArdle who is also giving the performance of his career as Louis. A difficult role and one that without, the actor playing Prior will really struggle. McArdle and Garfield have perfect chemistry and from their first scene convey the familiarity and conflict of their relationship. That McArdle doesn’t look the ‘traditional’ Louis that is cast-and frankly a highly attractive one- also offers a different dynamic between he and Garfield/Prior and later Joe/Tovey.  Louis’ is a hard sell for an actor- he can, indeed is, fundamentally unlikable at times but he is also the most universal of the characters. There’s a little bit of Louis in all us-whether it’s the neurotic insecure side, the side that has a mouth that runs away from them or frequently a foot in it, and the side that doesn’t hold up under pressure. The darkest, most honest part of Louis is when he turns away from Prior when he gets sick, and as much as what he does is terrible, it’s also equally understandable. And that is the skill that McArdle makes that decision honest, real and awfully relatable.

Equally easy to overlook amid the starry cast and emotional story lines is Susan Brown. Whose primary roles are Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg. Brown here is giving the performance of her career (and that is saying something) with a varied and challenging set of roles. Hannah, the Mormon Mother who doesn’t understand her son’s actions, and struggles with his confessions, alone in the big city, overcomes this to care for Prior when he needs her. It would be easy to slip into a caricature of an older Mother, or religious fanatic, but what she delivers is honest, at times raw and always intelligently played. Likewise, her Ethel Rosenberg, taps into the woman behind the story (or the ghost in this case) and manages to steal scenes-and laughs- from Nathan Lane.

Millennium is cleverly staged but it becomes more apparent how cleverly when viewed with Perestroika. But there are three revolves on stage, with various abstract ‘rooms’ built in. At the start stage left is Prior and Louis’ area, stage right Harper and Joe’s and then as things progress these bleed- or revolve into each other. It’s a neat and clever bit of staging, if flashier than I’d instinctively choose- but there’s method in it. Added to that, out of nowhere Roy’s apartment springs up from the stage. 

Of course, the end of Millennium has always been about the Angel. It’s- until now always been a traditional affair in terms of the entrance of the Angel, but this being Marianne Elliot (of War Horse and Curious Incident fame for the uninitiated) the traditional means of Angel entrance and/or execution were never going to do. It would be unfair to spoil what does fulfil the ‘Very Steven Spielberg’ that Prior remarks as she approaches. But it’s different- and yes it involved puppetry, but it worked.

Opening with literally the remains of Millennium around, the tone and direction of Perestroikais clearly different. And although these plays make a whole, they are separate works, and the subtlety and ultimately also clarity with which Elliot manages to treat them as separate and a whole is executed with finesse. In short Perestroikagradually strips away at the set, the play and in a manner the actors. It is not without its big set pieces- and those who don’t know just how big the Lyttleton stage is are in for a visual treat.

As much as Millennium works, staging wise, on its own there are questions- it doesn’t quite seem to fit with Kushner’s desired ‘Pared down’ approach, nor is it spectacular enough to seem an utter departure. However, with Perestroika it works, because what Elliot does is gradually strip all that back until the final scene is a bare stage with the actors and the angel statue. It’s both exactly what the Brechtian Epic influences Kushner draws on are after, as well as Elliot’s own twist on it- and that’s some confidence as a director too with this massive thing. Perestroika is full of little genius nerdy touches that I loved but it’s also visually stunning despite that being ‘stripped back’ using the entire depth of the stage is a great move and gives a real chance to play with the images on stage. 

Despite all that going on, the theatricality it’s still the performances that carry it through, particularly in the last few scenes. Prior’s address in Heaven, when he implores the Angels ‘Bless me anyway, I want more life.’ Is some of the most beautiful writing in the play- and despite the metaphor and staging being strong in this scene it is quietly left to Garfield to deliver the real clout of the writing. It is the Epilogue however when the power is fully given over to Garfield, the set stripped bare as he deliver’s Prior’s final address. The end as ever was emotional, and as I said above, strips it all back. The writing of Angels remains as powerful as 25 years ago, and when it comes down to the scenes that really matter, Elliot is smart in staging it so that all the attention is back on the words. And it really packs a punch. 

Angels in America is a wordy, challenging piece of writing and Elliot gives an audience additional elements to think about with clever thoughtful staging that challenges the play as well as the audience. It’s a play filled with themes, questions and often not answers which while unwieldy and yes-over-written at times, there is a reason this play was canonised so quickly and is revisited now. It feels fresh, it feels current and ultimately it is also an incredibly moving piece of work. Elliot’s staging dazzles, but it is Kushner’s writing and a team of emotionally charged and equally intelligent performances that have the final word.

Angels in America runs until August 19th. NT Live showings nationwide and internationally from 29th July. 


Angels at the National (a reflection before the review)

I had to do a Kushner and give this post a long subtitle.

When I called my PhD thesis “Angels at the National” (I write terrible titles I know) I never thought I’d be able to say it again. Of course, the Gods like to have a laugh at my expense so mere months after I bound the copy, Rufus Norris and Marianne Elliot got together and decided that I clearly hadn’t had enough to write about. 

But how does it feel to have the thing that has lived in your head for so long, back, brought to life in front of you? As much as I love the plays, I’m also conditioned to be hyper critical. I know every line (I amazed/freaked out Elliot herself with my ability to know exact quotations on demand). And of course, I have my own expectations about how it should be. How then would it feel to go back? 

At the end of Part 1 I found myself leaning on the railings by the Thames, trying to compose myself and my thoughts enough to move. At the end of Part 2, I’m sure I had forgotten how to breathe for a while. And still I can’t quite wrap my head around it all. 
The last half an hour before curtain felt almost physically painful (not unlike the Lyttleton’s seats after nearly 8 hours…) Having waited nearly ten years since the last time, and after a year of build up knowing that this was happening, the last 30 minutes were too much. There is an energy to the NT foyer I don’t think I’ve ever felt. 
There was a breathing of a familiar sigh of relief as the first two scenes unfolded- as Rabbi Isidor Chelmwitz reflects on Jewish journeys, and then as Nathan Lane took the reigns as Roy. That Roy scene fits easily with his comedy chops and the audience was eating out of his hand within seconds. The next scene would clinch it for me- Prior and Louis for the first time- so much hinges on this. But with the immortal line ‘Cousin Doris is a dyke’ a feel a sense of relief, it works. I always have to love Louis, which possibly says things about my own romantic leanings and shortcoming that are best not to go into, and I do, immediately and fully (I mean, that it’s James McArdle helps obviously). McArdle isn’t the ‘typical’ Louis, but as soon becomes, Elliot has littered this production with little ‘not quite typical’ details that add up to something else entirely. 

Almost too soon it’s the first interval, things feel like they’re already progressing at breakneck speed. Anyone afraid of the running time should surely see by now that the 7 hours in practice feel like far less when it’s going right.  Act 2 is where it starts to get serious. And the realism of the opening scene is like a slap across the face. And I’m reminded why I love this play so very much, that lurching from laughter to tears to sheer emotional gut-punch within moments. That’s the genius of Kushner’s writing and that’s what Elliot is doing so well here- pulling out those elements and taking them to their extremes while still managing to make it feel perfectly natural.

By interval two I’m aware I’m just smiling, elated, this feels like flying. So badly I wanted it to be good but I was scared to put too much expectation on it. What if it wasn’t, what if also, after all this time, this investment, I no longer love it? But it’s pure theatrical joy, a combination of exactly what I wanted and what I never expected- lines I thought I knew completely turned on their head and completely perfect. One moment I’m so glad was just as I expected, and hoped was the scene, set to Moon River, where Louis and Prior dance. Amid everything else, the information overload, the comedy, the politics, that moment is pure romance and tragedy and beautiful. Kushner’s stage direction for that scene reads ‘Louis appears. He looks gorgeous’. He does, and two bars in I was a goner. A building of comedy, realism and enough political points to keep a debate going for the entire break between parts had built part 1 into exactly what I’d expected, and hoped. 
And then, The Angel appeared. 
I know this play. I know virtually every production that’s been performed. I know that Angel. I know how she arrives. I know how she moves, what she looks like. I know her. 
I don’t know her. For the first time, ever in the theatre my mouth was open in surprise and shock. I’d give Part 1 a standing ovation for the last minute alone. On paper, it almost shouldn’t work. But it does. 
Stumbling out into the sunshine after Part 1 feels strange, and I end up stumbling towards the river and standing for a while. Looking across the river at the University building where I first started studying this play. On the ‘break’ even away from the building itself people were talking about Angels, catching snippets of excited conversation, from those who knew the plays and those who didn’t was fascinating, and it felt like being a part of something. To share this thing, I love so much with people again, in real time, experiencing it again. As I eavesdropped shamelessly I was also conscious of seeing people reading the programme- because I wrote an article for it, and it was both surreal and a little overwhelming to think I’d written something people around me were reading. That so many people across the run might read. And for me, as someone who spent so long with my head in this play, someone who used the programmes from the original as a window to that past production, to now have something I wrote in the programme for this one, was something special. 

Part 2. The sprawling messy Perestroika. (you’d think by now I could spell Perestroika without checking, you’d be wrong). To this point, I was happy, I was shaken. I was in love all over again. But, once I’d stepped back, had time to reflect, if it was just part 1 I was seeing. I’d have questions, I’d have critiques, there were things I wasn’t sure about. I was soon to learn a lesson: Elliot knew damn well what she was doing, and what she was doing we shouldn’t forget was not directing two plays but directing two parts. And there’s a difference. And in seeing Part 2 all became clear.
Angels is both one play in two parts and two separate plays, symbiotic but distinct. Perestroika is a theatrical piece, but not without its moments of honest emotional realism, and that is the gift that is this piece.  And the direction, more and more experimental, abstract is a gift to it. This was also the first time seeing the (considerable) revisions to the text as well and it was exciting to feel like discovering parts of the play for the first time again- being at once incredibly conscious of the differences but also feeling like they were just right. Alongside that is just what Elliot did to the play. That is a director that at once understands fully the essence of what Kushner was writing, but also not afraid to pull it through her own interpretation and pull it out the other side.
This isn’t a review, so the specifics are for another day. But it was subtle and not subtle at once. But to two people I mentioned a rain machine, and we all three got over excited. It’s a messy, magical truly epic ride of sheer theatricality. But we end on a virtually empty stage. And once again it’s hard to breathe.
It’s hard to explain, just how engrained these plays are in my consciousness. Kushner’s words run through my head, almost my veins on a virtually daily basis. And I don’t just mean my habit of shouting ‘Fuck you I’m a prophet!’ at people who piss me off. Over the last 10 years or so, those words have become a part of me. The real Bethesda Fountain, where they play ends, is Prior’s favourite place in the Universe. It’s mine too. I started going there because of this play, but it’s taken on meaning beyond that. It was a pilgrimage after I finished my PhD, it was a place myself and my long-distance friend and ‘brain twin’ had to go and sit together. I’ve gone back so many times, over so many years, and I recite Prior’s words to myself there. And it’s back, on stage where it all started in front of me again. And the words of the Epilogue, and indeed Prior’s invocation to the Angels, these are words I’ve absorbed, words I’ve taken on separate from the play. I knew hearing them again would be emotional, but it also felt like coming home.

The play ends on a quiet note, with that simple address to the audience ‘The Great Work Begins’. The lights go down and before they have chance to come up again the audience erupts. On their feet before the lights come up, and in London, like Prior we are ‘slow to rise’ particularly play audiences. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like it. And for me that was something too, a moment of ‘It’s not just me, it’s really not just me, that was magical’.
It’s been more than 24 hours now, and I’m still not entirely sure how to process it all. What I do know is that, once again Angels, Kushner’s work came back to me when I needed it. This play changes people, and coming home to my ‘Favourite place in the Universe, the parts of it I have seen’ has changed me, even after all this time.
So, once again The Great Work Begins.