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A Kind of Painful Progress…Angels in America and me

Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.
I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again.  To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.
A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life.  From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto. 
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.
I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.
“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”
And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.
There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one).  If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.  
This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.
“But still….bless me anyway”
Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.
And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.
The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.
I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did.  I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.
Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you.  Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that.  The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.
In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world.  To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words.  Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.
 “I’m almost done”
It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.
So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.
“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

Categories
Uncategorized

A kind of painful progress…Angels in America and me.

Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.
I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again.  To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.
A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life.  From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto. 
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.
I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.
“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”
And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.
There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one).  If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.  
This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.
“But still….bless me anyway”
Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.
And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.
The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.
I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did.  I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.
Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you.  Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that.  The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.
In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world.  To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words.  Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.
 “I’m almost done”
It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.
So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.
“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
And of course, as ever, ‘The Great Work Begins’
Categories
Uncategorized

A kind of painful progress…Angels in America and me.

Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.
I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again.  To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.
A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life.  From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto. 
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.
I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.
“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”
And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.
There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one).  If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.  
This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.
“But still….bless me anyway”
Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.
And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.
The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.
I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did.  I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.
Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you.  Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that.  The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.
In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world.  To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words.  Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.
 “I’m almost done”
It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.
So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.
“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
And of course, as ever, ‘The Great Work Begins’
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More Life? More thoughts on Angels in America (29th July)

(1st August 2017)

This was a return to Angels for a two show day. It should have actually been the first time I’d seen it but luckily for me someone unable to use their ticket and NT Live meant this was round 3 and a chance to really take in the details.

First  a note, I know it’s been wall to wall Angels here and for those who follow me on social media/know me in real life. But I’ve loved this play for 14 years. I’ve researched and studied it over the course of 10 and spent nearly 4 of those studying it more forensically than anyone but probably Kushner himself and a couple of other high-end nerds. Also this production- and I’m going to reflect on this when it’s all over- has meant so much to me. Being involved in a tiny way has given me a lot, and taught me a lot. But also just having this production back at this moment has meant such a great deal. So indulge me a little while longer.

The two show day is a marathon not a sprint for both audience and cast. And actually watching it again I really felt the sense of the cast starting steady, and really ramping up by the end, it’s a true experience to witness that kind of performance across a day, and a true team effort as well.

And that’s what I want to start with actually. Although there’s standout performances, things that I’m now noticing, liking more, liking less. What stands out to me is the sheer force of the whole ensemble. Because people forget that this is a true ensemble piece of theatre. Each of our 8 key actors holds together the whole story. If one person is even slightly off their game the whole thing falls, and nobody drops so much as a line. More importantly as the show is well and truly into it’s run, it feels like the whole company is running at it with everything they’ve got and it still feels like new moments are being discovered. It still feels like a real conversation and -dare I say it- journey, for each of them. And that again, knowing it backwards as I do, I can be surprised by readings of a line again, is really something.

For me this time it was a chance to take in the little details, having seen the big picture and thanks to the luxury of NT Live just days before, held it fresh in my mind. One of the true delights in this is the number of split-scenes, and the chance to focus my attention away from the main ‘point’. So while for example, Roy was being delivered his ‘very bad news’ I was able to observe the sweet and poignant wordless play going on stage left, between Prior and Louis- watching them, following the end of their scene proper, get ready for bed and eventually curl up asleep (or were they I believe Prior actually stays awake staring at the ceiling for the entire scene it’s these tiny details I was loving seeing). But also just how detailed the performances, and the production are really struck me.

Seeing the plays side by side again cemented just how Elliot understands them as one play. has directed them- and that she really ‘gets’ the idea they are one play and two halves of a play. There are things in Millennium that simply don’t make sense direction-wise until you see Perestroika. And I adore that- you wouldn’t expect in a ‘normal’ play to be able to make sense of every directorial choice by the interval, so why in this should it make sense by the end of part 1? What strikes me also is the idea that the set builds the play from the ground up alongside the direction. Even when the ‘set’ is a complete absence of set. It’s some whole picture thinking that produces some stunning visuals and some wonderful theatrical effects.

It is this sense of directing one whole play that accounts for the- to steal a phase from Prior- ‘Emotional liablity’ -of the plays. By interval four, I was exhausted, emotionally spent before even the final act. It feels like being pulled along by a train that’s getting faster with each passing hour. It is also the sheer emotional investment in these characters by the end of the day. The power of Kushner’s writing has always been, for me, that we as an audience can see ourselves in all of his characters. But that also means that we go through what they go through so intimately, and this group of actors really brings us in.

Denise Gough is a masterclass at this. It’s not news to say how good she is, but she’s so good it’s easy to miss how good she is. Her Harper is actually more prickly, more possibly dis-likable than other interpretations, but she’s so strong with it. And for women in particular perhaps, it’s the feeling of the stronger a woman is appearing the harder she’ll fall. And the power of her Harper failing to hold on feels so very real-almost any of us are just one final thing away from a flight of fancy to Antarctica. And that’s the skill of it- she isn’t the slightly odd Mormon wife who takes to many pills, she could be any of us, particularly when she falls. And fall she does, making sense of utter nonsensical ramblings, making illogical feel logical and never actually giving that much away. We don’t know exactly how Harper ends up as she is, but we will with everything we have for her to escape.Meanwhile she is charming and oh so very funny- the verging towards farcical  levels in the Diorama scene with Prior let Gough show her comedic timing and skill, alongside the rest of a devastating performance.  And when she escapes into her dreams I cried for her and when she finally escapes by walking out on Joe, I cried even more. It was one simple line that summed up all she did with Harper, her joyous, throwaway ‘A trip to the Moon on gossamer wings’ because actually it isn’t throwaway- Gough gives it what I’d never noticed before, the exact moment Harper knows she can leave, she will leave. And when her Harper gets on that plane to San Francisco I’ve never been more sure that she’ll be alright in the end.

Opposite Gough, Russell Tovey also delivers new elements of Joe. While he’s still wide-eyed and puppy-dog, there’s a dark side to Joe that makes you believe Harper’s fear of him. His habit also of talking at 100 miles per hour when he gets angry gives an urgency, and a fear to his character. This dark element, and an obvious sexual tension with Roy from the outset makes Tovey’s Joe feel a much more unsettling presence and this seems to give him the power that unsettles the worlds of those lives he crosses.

Not least that of James McArdle’s Louis, who continues to do extraordinary things with his character. The true marker of his skill being the ‘Have you no decency’ scene with Joe/Tovey in which he manages to both tear through some of Kushner’s finest political points while simultaneously tearing his heart out over Joe and his betrayals. The ‘Have you no Decency’ scene may be my favourite piece of writing not only in theatre, and McArdle here finds levels to this complex scene and gives it a new level of emotion. There are details to his Louis I noticed more- from the physical tics to the ‘Angels in America’ scene that make it more hilarious (he attempts and fails to cross his legs every time he tries and fails to conclude a point), to the vocal elements of his Louis- a stuttering hesitation that implies the whirring ridiculous nature of Louis (Kushner’s) brain as it ties itself in knots. And finally, yes, the ability to cry far too easily. But what also strikes me is the tender streak he gives Louis, underneath it all. There’s no doubling there is a real affection for Joe- despite everything Joe is or does, but above all the tender and deep affection for Prior is also really obvious, and despite the hope of the ending I felt a real melancholy for Louis (and Prior) for that loss of what they once had that I hadn’t really before.

The wonder of seeing this multiple times is also being able to reflect critically on it too. For someone so invested, as much as I rave about it there were always going to be aspects that I didn’t like or at least that I say ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ And there are many- the design at times, though I get the overall shape of things (and do love how it works in Perestrokia) isn’t what I’d do. I love the bravery of the Angel even if I’m not sure she always works. Would I have cast Nathan Lane? No. Do I think someone should tell him he isn’t being ‘Max Bialystock with sandwiches’ in scene 1? Sure. Do I occasionally want to tell Andrew Garfield to dial it back a notch? Yes. (Caveat I think he gives an outstanding performance but I want Prior’s cracks to show a little more than he lets them). Do I think Angels can be done with 8 actors and a chair rather than everything the Lyttleton can do? Yes. But you know what I know Marianne Elliot knows that too. And I want to bloody well applaud, high five and hug her for doing it exactly this way. Because it doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t do it this way it matters that she did. That someone for what is essentially an anniversary production came in and threw out the HBO production, threw out the original production and said ‘What can we do?’ I don’t have to love every choice made in this production to be glad it was made. And fascinated by them all in equal measure.

And what this production has done for me intellectually (emotionally, personally is it’s own post I’ll get to after it closes), is make me think about the play afresh- and isn’t that what a revival should do? I’ve re-thought the politics in detail- granted nobody when this revival was commissioned could know just how relevant parallels with the Reagan Era would be. But I’ve considered how Kushner’s small-p politics should be considered. I’ve thought about religious imagery again seeing this new incarnation of the Angel. Questions of morality, of loyalty, of friendship and love over politics seem to be thrashed out fresh. That’s the joy of revival. The ‘Magic of the theatre’ as Harper says.

Another element for me, knowing it too well, is thinking about these characters again. Roy, it pains me to say, becomes more real than his previous ‘footnote in history’. I consider Belize differently with more experience of the world, knowledge of racism in America. I look at Louis and Prior, now the same age as me and consider what they go through. The marker of a truly great play- it grows with you. I said above that I thought about Harper being ok after the end of the play. And this production more than any time previously has made me think about what happens to the characters after the play. Perhaps that’s a marker of how real they are. I had an in-depth conversation about how Louis and Prior met, I considered more how Harper had come to end up with Joe, her miscarriage, Hannah’s family and what becomes of them all at the end of the play. And interestingly this production has shifted my thoughts slightly-  to a much more hopeful one. I’d always been fairly negative about Prior’s future, but it is actually such a hopeful production I’ve come to revise that, finding myself thinking ‘I bet he does live for years, I bet he’s still alive’.

 And that’s what I’ve noticed about Elliot’s production, it’s hopeful. As Garfield steps forward to deliever that final Epilogue, the house lights of the Lyttleton rise (in a genius, devestating move, thanks Marianne…) I defy anyone not to be overwhelmed by that sense of, yes there is hope. It is also incidentally the scene in which Garfield is at the height of his powers- a sense of growing into this final incarnation of Prior across the near 8 hours, and emodiying the theatrical responsiblity that rests on that scene. And so he delivers the audience, that if in defiance of everything- of going to hell and back (well heaven) Prior can declare ‘The world only spins forward’ then maybe, an audience can too go out there and keep going. Keep hoping. For as Kushner also says; ‘There is an ethical obligation to hope’. Angels is at the heart of it a very traditional theatrical lesson. One that Prior addresses to us at the close, and we are sent, back into the world after being immersed in theirs with the most simple of instructions ‘More life’ but with ‘more life’ as Prior says ‘The Great Work Begins’. It’s deceptively simple after those 8 hours, but the heart of it has always been simply humanity, and the resolve to keep going. It’s at once deceptively simple and utterly devestating.

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More Life? More thoughts on Angels in America (29th July)

(1st August 2017)

This was a return to Angels for a two show day. It should have actually been the first time I’d seen it but luckily for me someone unable to use their ticket and NT Live meant this was round 3 and a chance to really take in the details.

First  a note, I know it’s been wall to wall Angels here and for those who follow me on social media/know me in real life. But I’ve loved this play for 14 years. I’ve researched and studied it over the course of 10 and spent nearly 4 of those studying it more forensically than anyone but probably Kushner himself and a couple of other high-end nerds. Also this production- and I’m going to reflect on this when it’s all over- has meant so much to me. Being involved in a tiny way has given me a lot, and taught me a lot. But also just having this production back at this moment has meant such a great deal. So indulge me a little while longer.

The two show day is a marathon not a sprint for both audience and cast. And actually watching it again I really felt the sense of the cast starting steady, and really ramping up by the end, it’s a true experience to witness that kind of performance across a day, and a true team effort as well.

And that’s what I want to start with actually. Although there’s standout performances, things that I’m now noticing, liking more, liking less. What stands out to me is the sheer force of the whole ensemble. Because people forget that this is a true ensemble piece of theatre. Each of our 8 key actors holds together the whole story. If one person is even slightly off their game the whole thing falls, and nobody drops so much as a line. More importantly as the show is well and truly into it’s run, it feels like the whole company is running at it with everything they’ve got and it still feels like new moments are being discovered. It still feels like a real conversation and -dare I say it- journey, for each of them. And that again, knowing it backwards as I do, I can be surprised by readings of a line again, is really something.

For me this time it was a chance to take in the little details, having seen the big picture and thanks to the luxury of NT Live just days before, held it fresh in my mind. One of the true delights in this is the number of split-scenes, and the chance to focus my attention away from the main ‘point’. So while for example, Roy was being delivered his ‘very bad news’ I was able to observe the sweet and poignant wordless play going on stage left, between Prior and Louis- watching them, following the end of their scene proper, get ready for bed and eventually curl up asleep (or were they I believe Prior actually stays awake staring at the ceiling for the entire scene it’s these tiny details I was loving seeing). But also just how detailed the performances, and the production are really struck me.

Seeing the plays side by side again cemented just how Elliot understands them as one play. has directed them- and that she really ‘gets’ the idea they are one play and two halves of a play. There are things in Millennium that simply don’t make sense direction-wise until you see Perestroika. And I adore that- you wouldn’t expect in a ‘normal’ play to be able to make sense of every directorial choice by the interval, so why in this should it make sense by the end of part 1? What strikes me also is the idea that the set builds the play from the ground up alongside the direction. Even when the ‘set’ is a complete absence of set. It’s some whole picture thinking that produces some stunning visuals and some wonderful theatrical effects.

It is this sense of directing one whole play that accounts for the- to steal a phase from Prior- ‘Emotional liablity’ -of the plays. By interval four, I was exhausted, emotionally spent before even the final act. It feels like being pulled along by a train that’s getting faster with each passing hour. It is also the sheer emotional investment in these characters by the end of the day. The power of Kushner’s writing has always been, for me, that we as an audience can see ourselves in all of his characters. But that also means that we go through what they go through so intimately, and this group of actors really brings us in.

Denise Gough is a masterclass at this. It’s not news to say how good she is, but she’s so good it’s easy to miss how good she is. Her Harper is actually more prickly, more possibly dis-likable than other interpretations, but she’s so strong with it. And for women in particular perhaps, it’s the feeling of the stronger a woman is appearing the harder she’ll fall. And the power of her Harper failing to hold on feels so very real-almost any of us are just one final thing away from a flight of fancy to Antarctica. And that’s the skill of it- she isn’t the slightly odd Mormon wife who takes to many pills, she could be any of us, particularly when she falls. And fall she does, making sense of utter nonsensical ramblings, making illogical feel logical and never actually giving that much away. We don’t know exactly how Harper ends up as she is, but we will with everything we have for her to escape.Meanwhile she is charming and oh so very funny- the verging towards farcical  levels in the Diorama scene with Prior let Gough show her comedic timing and skill, alongside the rest of a devastating performance.  And when she escapes into her dreams I cried for her and when she finally escapes by walking out on Joe, I cried even more. It was one simple line that summed up all she did with Harper, her joyous, throwaway ‘A trip to the Moon on gossamer wings’ because actually it isn’t throwaway- Gough gives it what I’d never noticed before, the exact moment Harper knows she can leave, she will leave. And when her Harper gets on that plane to San Francisco I’ve never been more sure that she’ll be alright in the end.

Opposite Gough, Russell Tovey also delivers new elements of Joe. While he’s still wide-eyed and puppy-dog, there’s a dark side to Joe that makes you believe Harper’s fear of him. His habit also of talking at 100 miles per hour when he gets angry gives an urgency, and a fear to his character. This dark element, and an obvious sexual tension with Roy from the outset makes Tovey’s Joe feel a much more unsettling presence and this seems to give him the power that unsettles the worlds of those lives he crosses.

Not least that of James McArdle’s Louis, who continues to do extraordinary things with his character. The true marker of his skill being the ‘Have you no decency’ scene with Joe/Tovey in which he manages to both tear through some of Kushner’s finest political points while simultaneously tearing his heart out over Joe and his betrayals. The ‘Have you no Decency’ scene may be my favourite piece of writing not only in theatre, and McArdle here finds levels to this complex scene and gives it a new level of emotion. There are details to his Louis I noticed more- from the physical tics to the ‘Angels in America’ scene that make it more hilarious (he attempts and fails to cross his legs every time he tries and fails to conclude a point), to the vocal elements of his Louis- a stuttering hesitation that implies the whirring ridiculous nature of Louis (Kushner’s) brain as it ties itself in knots. And finally, yes, the ability to cry far too easily. But what also strikes me is the tender streak he gives Louis, underneath it all. There’s no doubling there is a real affection for Joe- despite everything Joe is or does, but above all the tender and deep affection for Prior is also really obvious, and despite the hope of the ending I felt a real melancholy for Louis (and Prior) for that loss of what they once had that I hadn’t really before.

The wonder of seeing this multiple times is also being able to reflect critically on it too. For someone so invested, as much as I rave about it there were always going to be aspects that I didn’t like or at least that I say ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ And there are many- the design at times, though I get the overall shape of things (and do love how it works in Perestrokia) isn’t what I’d do. I love the bravery of the Angel even if I’m not sure she always works. Would I have cast Nathan Lane? No. Do I think someone should tell him he isn’t being ‘Max Bialystock with sandwiches’ in scene 1? Sure. Do I occasionally want to tell Andrew Garfield to dial it back a notch? Yes. (Caveat I think he gives an outstanding performance but I want Prior’s cracks to show a little more than he lets them). Do I think Angels can be done with 8 actors and a chair rather than everything the Lyttleton can do? Yes. But you know what I know Marianne Elliot knows that too. And I want to bloody well applaud, high five and hug her for doing it exactly this way. Because it doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t do it this way it matters that she did. That someone for what is essentially an anniversary production came in and threw out the HBO production, threw out the original production and said ‘What can we do?’ I don’t have to love every choice made in this production to be glad it was made. And fascinated by them all in equal measure.

And what this production has done for me intellectually (emotionally, personally is it’s own post I’ll get to after it closes), is make me think about the play afresh- and isn’t that what a revival should do? I’ve re-thought the politics in detail- granted nobody when this revival was commissioned could know just how relevant parallels with the Reagan Era would be. But I’ve considered how Kushner’s small-p politics should be considered. I’ve thought about religious imagery again seeing this new incarnation of the Angel. Questions of morality, of loyalty, of friendship and love over politics seem to be thrashed out fresh. That’s the joy of revival. The ‘Magic of the theatre’ as Harper says.

Another element for me, knowing it too well, is thinking about these characters again. Roy, it pains me to say, becomes more real than his previous ‘footnote in history’. I consider Belize differently with more experience of the world, knowledge of racism in America. I look at Louis and Prior, now the same age as me and consider what they go through. The marker of a truly great play- it grows with you. I said above that I thought about Harper being ok after the end of the play. And this production more than any time previously has made me think about what happens to the characters after the play. Perhaps that’s a marker of how real they are. I had an in-depth conversation about how Louis and Prior met, I considered more how Harper had come to end up with Joe, her miscarriage, Hannah’s family and what becomes of them all at the end of the play. And interestingly this production has shifted my thoughts slightly-  to a much more hopeful one. I’d always been fairly negative about Prior’s future, but it is actually such a hopeful production I’ve come to revise that, finding myself thinking ‘I bet he does live for years, I bet he’s still alive’.

 And that’s what I’ve noticed about Elliot’s production, it’s hopeful. As Garfield steps forward to deliever that final Epilogue, the house lights of the Lyttleton rise (in a genius, devestating move, thanks Marianne…) I defy anyone not to be overwhelmed by that sense of, yes there is hope. It is also incidentally the scene in which Garfield is at the height of his powers- a sense of growing into this final incarnation of Prior across the near 8 hours, and emodiying the theatrical responsiblity that rests on that scene. And so he delivers the audience, that if in defiance of everything- of going to hell and back (well heaven) Prior can declare ‘The world only spins forward’ then maybe, an audience can too go out there and keep going. Keep hoping. For as Kushner also says; ‘There is an ethical obligation to hope’. Angels is at the heart of it a very traditional theatrical lesson. One that Prior addresses to us at the close, and we are sent, back into the world after being immersed in theirs with the most simple of instructions ‘More life’ but with ‘more life’ as Prior says ‘The Great Work Begins’. It’s deceptively simple after those 8 hours, but the heart of it has always been simply humanity, and the resolve to keep going. It’s at once deceptively simple and utterly devestating.

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NT Live: Millennium Approaches


(First written 21st July 2017) 

I really enjoyed the NT Live screening of Angels in America. I particularly liked the way they did the CGI Apes, and the jungle was really realistic and I’m not one for CGI usually.

Confused? So was I.

I will get to a collection of thoughts on seeing Angels in the cinema. But first…

In Act 1 the picture cut out. Not that unusual (annoyingly) in these feeds, but it’s live, these things happen. For about 5 minutes it was a radio play (Missing a bit of key dialogue when that cut out too) . These things happen. Again in Act 2, just at the Hot Dogs scene (one of my favourites again). Suddenly the title plate for Planet of the Apes appeared. No, surely they can’t….oh yes, yes they can. Planet of the Apes, played on screen while Joe and Louis continued to talk about Politics, and Miss Ron Reagan Jnr (the pardon the expression heterosexual). So forgive me if from now on, the Reagan family is forever a bunch of Apes to me.

The cinema were in fairness apologetic, and gave vouchers to audience members to make up for it. But still this does highlight some of the issues with NT Live, that things go wrong and ultimately you’re not in the room. I know this is an issue for some people. And it’s obviously an issue for those of us who have Apes playing instead of Angels. And yes, as an utter Angels snob I have issues with some of the camera angle choices, and yes, it did lose some of the intensity and intimacy of being in the room. But you as much as I came into this post expecting to write about that in some detail. I can’t. Why? because last night (and beyond) Angels in America was beamed around the world to 100s of 1000s of people. And it was preserved in gloriously filmed quality forevermore.

As a) someone who doesn’t live in London b) someone who is perpetual broke c) a researcher/theatre historian I cannot find fault with this. Firstly the chance for those who do live close enough but couldn’t get tickets, those who could never travel to London for it, and those on the other side of the world. Whatever their reason for wanting to see this play, love of the writer, the subject, the cast, they get to see it. As a researcher/historian who only previously had static camera footage from the back of the auditorium, from the early 90s, this is a godsend. That the NT is preserving in a different way aspects of their history is wonderful and fascinating.

And ultimately it’s the lucky ones who were able to be in the room who complain, say that it’s not the same. The harsh truth is: this isn’t for you, it’s for everyone else. I adore NT Live and the access it gives, also in terms of those people not comfortable in a cinema. So if it’s not for you, that’s fine. But it is for a lot of other people.

NT Live related waffle aside. The experience of seeing it again was really emotional, intense experience. On one hand, related to it being the broadcast, I was really nervous that it would go right that it would be preserved for posterity in it’s best shape. And conscious that this is also a really high profile show, and that the cast get it right. And well, I’m just over invested in that sense. On a personal level as well knowing people I know were watching it (mostly due to my years of relentless harassment) made me worry they’d not like it. And on the other side of the Atlantic my ‘brain twin’ my friend who is the mirror image of me in nerdy pursuits, and my friend because of Angels, was watching this beloved production of ‘mine’ and for the first time ever we’d be watching the same production. That’s just a lot of emotional investment for a rainy Thursday evening in July.

Luckily, I think none of us were disappointed. I’ve never said this production was perfect, and if anything multiple viewings are allowing me the luxury of figuring out what the fixes I’d make, the imperfections are. But to have a production, and a chance to do that at all is still magical.

For me things in the production had come on leaps and bounds since I saw it in previews (the very first two show day in fact). As you’d expect everyone has grown into their characters more, and everything feels much more settled, but also much more developed. In particular Russell Tovey seems to be having more fun with Joe, but also found more of his depths. He’s a very different Joe to others, but as an adorable puppy dog version he works incredibly well. Meanwhile Denise Gough is doing what Denise Gough does and soaring with Harper. She’s so sharp, and knowing while in the midst of her madness that it’s scary, and brilliant. I still adore what Andrew Garfield does, I admire his portrayal of Prior, and it’s difficult to doubt his emotional commitment to the part, in close up particularly the nuances of his performance were more apparent and I am fascinated by his take. Meanwhile my sheer devotion and worship of Mr James McArdle doesn’t waver. Yes Louis is my favourite character but that means I’m even harder to win over with him, but I am won. He also has really grown and settled into Louis- his ‘Democracy in America’ speech is a tour de force, and he is more emotional, but also more playful when it’s called for- a real joy to watch. Seeing them all in close up, but also seeing the interactions across the play again lets it really sink in just how good they all are.

And Nathan Lane. Ah Nathan. To quote a friend who shares similar opinions of him that I do ‘Well who knew he had it in him?’. No he’d never have been my choice for Roy, but then neither would Al Pacinio and he’s still brilliant. As is Lane. In close up and on film I’d feared he’d be just too much but actually he walks that line well.

The set as well, given the luxury to see it all from the camera angles rather than craning my neck in row C, my God that works. The boxes that form a perfect New York Living metaphor, and the swirling platforms, spinning clockwise as part of the perpetual motion of the set. It’s been a long time since I saw a set so seamlessly tell the story along with the dialogue. And the filmed version was a gift for that. When the set pulls back and Harper’s Antarctica appeared I shed happy tears because it was all so perfect, and it was being shared by so many people at that moment. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Talking of tears, I had a bet with myself as to when I’d cry first. I choked up at ‘KS baby’ and again at ‘Rainy afternoon in March’ (I’m a sucker for Louis, I have emotional problems what can I tell you). Instead of soft lady-like tears what I had in general was what I can only describe as a lump of emotion in my chest. I let out a kind of gasp-sob when Prior screamed ‘I wish I were dead’. And let’s just say nobody better play ‘Moon River’ near me any time soon. But ultimately when I got really emotional was at the curtain call. Going back to my earlier point, just the emotion that this was a thing that had now been shared that ‘my’ play, the one I’d been banging on and on to anyone who would listen to read, to see, had been shared around the world. And that the cast (and crew) had done an amazing job in making it happen. I was a proud nerd right then.

And this is only Part 1. It’s a different experience seeing them a week apart, but actually I was so drained last night that I was glad of the breather. Is it the same as being in the room? no, but the ‘magic of the theatre’ really did manage to translate across the screen. Even with a short Monkey interlude.

See you on the other side for part 2. The Great Work Begins.

And if anyone can find me the Octopus mug that Roy has in his first scene, I’ll love you forever.

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NT Live: Perestrokia


(First written 28th July 2017)
So after last week’s adventure (see here) as long as there were no Apes involved things could only get better at the second NT Live screening right? Right.

As I saw the production ‘Live’ again this weekend an actual reflection on my continuing thoughts on the play are here, while this post just thinks about NT live and capturing the play on film.

I’m happy to report there were no ‘Apes in America’ this time around, and aside from momentary sound glitches there were no technical issues until the very end…where for about 20 seconds something very strange went on with sound and picture in Harper’s monologue…now I always cry in that scene but it would have been for very different reasons this time. But luckily all was well.

But to continue my NT Live related waffle from the Part 1 review also; a few minor technical glitches are a small price to pay for getting to see these broadcasts. Particularly Angels which by being a) two parts b) extremely in demand (understatement of the year?!) is very hard to see. And for those who didn’t make it, there are Encore screenings in September. And of course, I urge you to go.

And so how was Part 2? firstly, I’ve given up any pretence of this being a ‘real’ review. Like Millennium I found the cinema experience incredibly intense, and that the productions and performances had altered greatly since I saw it in previews. Now here’s a little secret: Perestroika is my favourite. I feel bad, firstly because I spend a lot of time insisting to people that they are in fact one play. And also because for me picking a favourite is akin to picking a favourite child. But if I had children to pick, it would be the weird slightly unhinged one I’d love more. So Perestroika it is.

But what that also means is nearly all of my favourite scenes are in it. Which is a lot to live up to, for someone so emotionally invested. And I think my companion for the evening and frankly anyone around me would agree I got emotionally invested. Now, like Louis I ‘cry way too easily’ but I’ve never been that much of a crier at Angels but this time around I sobbed. There’s no other word for it. At one point I squeaked. An actual honest to god squeak. Part of this I think is the intimate nature of the filming, it’s hard enough to watch everyone go through hell, harder still in close up.

What the broadcasts for me allowed too was a way to notice new things, to relax with the pressure of not using up a ‘chance’ seeing it live off, I could take in moments, lines choices again. And the detail, and although sometimes frustratingly prescriptive camera gaze, forces a noticing of things too. For me though it was the writing that stood out, having now seen it all once I found myself zoning in on Kushner’s writing. Particularly as I know the play backwards and basically ‘hear’ it as I go along, on the revisions in the text (yes I do hear that in the Angel’s voice). For those unfamilar, Kushner has never left the text alone and the latest revised verison was completed in 2011 (barring continued minor tweaks for performace) I know this version the least well. The version committed to my memory is the 2007 version, so it’s fascinating now hearing a slightly altered version of a well loved friend. For me, and my admittedly ridiculous level of knowledge was really fascinating, I was noticing old word I’d forgotten and new tweaks and changes I didn’t know- which sometimes was jarring. In fact it was jarring to the point I must confess I though James McArdle had messed up a line/scene (sorry James, should never have doubted you). Those moments aside though, I just remember a feeling of ‘these words just sing’ and how really remarkable Kushner’s writing is.

For those keeping score, I made it through Act  1, 2 and 3 (Though the combination of Joe’s ‘Then you’ll come back’ and Louis’ ‘I want to see you again’ are like a knife to the heart). I’d forgotten however just how relentless Act 4 is and by the end of that I already felt exhausted. Despite having welled up a few times, I’d kept tears at bay. I should have known it was going to be bad when Nathan Lane got me with his ‘You’ll find what you love will take you farther than you dreamed you’d go’ line…and by the time Prior was confronting the Angels I was gone.

There is a level of intensity and difference the filming brings to the text, and it’s no bad thing. It’s different sure but it doesn’t detract- one element I was worried about was losing some of the ‘magic’ that Marianne Elliot has created with Part 2 that is inherently theatrical. And while in some respects the effects are lessened when viewed through a lens, it’s overall such an intelligently filmed version that what you lose in some ways is gained in others. The chance to be that intimate with the actors in quieter, emotional moments makes up for losing the full impact of some of the theatrical quirks. That said so much of it is captured perfectly, and in fact the view the cameras get from above the Lyttleton circle gives a full view of that expansive stage and Elliot’s use of it that many in the theatre don’t get. I also noticed some beautiful images created on stage that my cheap seats downstairs didn’t show, so there’s a real advantage and beauty to this filming. Finally, when during the Epilogue the camera panned right out, showing Prior on the expanse of stage, house lights up I was truly overwhelmed with both the play, and the way it had been captured.

And once again, for this super nerd, having this play, and particularly this landmark production captured so wonderfully was nothing short of a dream- yes a dream. When I was scrambling around for hints of past productions, using black and white stills and stage manager’s notes. When I was begging an archive to let me in and watch the New York production.

(Here’s a couple of those, including Jason Issacs and Daniel Craig ….for science)

And now it’s preserved forever. And it’s also being put out there for so many more people to see. And that’s why I keep chasing after this play, because it’s important. Because I want people to see. I convinced I think 4 people to see the broadcasts this time, who now all love this play too. So yes, for this nerd it’s preserved, but more importantly it’s been captured and sent out there for other people to hear Kushner’s words sing.

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NT Live: Millennium Approaches


(First written 21st July 2017) 

I really enjoyed the NT Live screening of Angels in America. I particularly liked the way they did the CGI Apes, and the jungle was really realistic and I’m not one for CGI usually.

Confused? So was I.

I will get to a collection of thoughts on seeing Angels in the cinema. But first…

In Act 1 the picture cut out. Not that unusual (annoyingly) in these feeds, but it’s live, these things happen. For about 5 minutes it was a radio play (Missing a bit of key dialogue when that cut out too) . These things happen. Again in Act 2, just at the Hot Dogs scene (one of my favourites again). Suddenly the title plate for Planet of the Apes appeared. No, surely they can’t….oh yes, yes they can. Planet of the Apes, played on screen while Joe and Louis continued to talk about Politics, and Miss Ron Reagan Jnr (the pardon the expression heterosexual). So forgive me if from now on, the Reagan family is forever a bunch of Apes to me.

The cinema were in fairness apologetic, and gave vouchers to audience members to make up for it. But still this does highlight some of the issues with NT Live, that things go wrong and ultimately you’re not in the room. I know this is an issue for some people. And it’s obviously an issue for those of us who have Apes playing instead of Angels. And yes, as an utter Angels snob I have issues with some of the camera angle choices, and yes, it did lose some of the intensity and intimacy of being in the room. But you as much as I came into this post expecting to write about that in some detail. I can’t. Why? because last night (and beyond) Angels in America was beamed around the world to 100s of 1000s of people. And it was preserved in gloriously filmed quality forevermore.

As a) someone who doesn’t live in London b) someone who is perpetual broke c) a researcher/theatre historian I cannot find fault with this. Firstly the chance for those who do live close enough but couldn’t get tickets, those who could never travel to London for it, and those on the other side of the world. Whatever their reason for wanting to see this play, love of the writer, the subject, the cast, they get to see it. As a researcher/historian who only previously had static camera footage from the back of the auditorium, from the early 90s, this is a godsend. That the NT is preserving in a different way aspects of their history is wonderful and fascinating.

And ultimately it’s the lucky ones who were able to be in the room who complain, say that it’s not the same. The harsh truth is: this isn’t for you, it’s for everyone else. I adore NT Live and the access it gives, also in terms of those people not comfortable in a cinema. So if it’s not for you, that’s fine. But it is for a lot of other people.

NT Live related waffle aside. The experience of seeing it again was really emotional, intense experience. On one hand, related to it being the broadcast, I was really nervous that it would go right that it would be preserved for posterity in it’s best shape. And conscious that this is also a really high profile show, and that the cast get it right. And well, I’m just over invested in that sense. On a personal level as well knowing people I know were watching it (mostly due to my years of relentless harassment) made me worry they’d not like it. And on the other side of the Atlantic my ‘brain twin’ my friend who is the mirror image of me in nerdy pursuits, and my friend because of Angels, was watching this beloved production of ‘mine’ and for the first time ever we’d be watching the same production. That’s just a lot of emotional investment for a rainy Thursday evening in July.

Luckily, I think none of us were disappointed. I’ve never said this production was perfect, and if anything multiple viewings are allowing me the luxury of figuring out what the fixes I’d make, the imperfections are. But to have a production, and a chance to do that at all is still magical.

For me things in the production had come on leaps and bounds since I saw it in previews (the very first two show day in fact). As you’d expect everyone has grown into their characters more, and everything feels much more settled, but also much more developed. In particular Russell Tovey seems to be having more fun with Joe, but also found more of his depths. He’s a very different Joe to others, but as an adorable puppy dog version he works incredibly well. Meanwhile Denise Gough is doing what Denise Gough does and soaring with Harper. She’s so sharp, and knowing while in the midst of her madness that it’s scary, and brilliant. I still adore what Andrew Garfield does, I admire his portrayal of Prior, and it’s difficult to doubt his emotional commitment to the part, in close up particularly the nuances of his performance were more apparent and I am fascinated by his take. Meanwhile my sheer devotion and worship of Mr James McArdle doesn’t waver. Yes Louis is my favourite character but that means I’m even harder to win over with him, but I am won. He also has really grown and settled into Louis- his ‘Democracy in America’ speech is a tour de force, and he is more emotional, but also more playful when it’s called for- a real joy to watch. Seeing them all in close up, but also seeing the interactions across the play again lets it really sink in just how good they all are.

And Nathan Lane. Ah Nathan. To quote a friend who shares similar opinions of him that I do ‘Well who knew he had it in him?’. No he’d never have been my choice for Roy, but then neither would Al Pacinio and he’s still brilliant. As is Lane. In close up and on film I’d feared he’d be just too much but actually he walks that line well.

The set as well, given the luxury to see it all from the camera angles rather than craning my neck in row C, my God that works. The boxes that form a perfect New York Living metaphor, and the swirling platforms, spinning clockwise as part of the perpetual motion of the set. It’s been a long time since I saw a set so seamlessly tell the story along with the dialogue. And the filmed version was a gift for that. When the set pulls back and Harper’s Antarctica appeared I shed happy tears because it was all so perfect, and it was being shared by so many people at that moment. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Talking of tears, I had a bet with myself as to when I’d cry first. I choked up at ‘KS baby’ and again at ‘Rainy afternoon in March’ (I’m a sucker for Louis, I have emotional problems what can I tell you). Instead of soft lady-like tears what I had in general was what I can only describe as a lump of emotion in my chest. I let out a kind of gasp-sob when Prior screamed ‘I wish I were dead’. And let’s just say nobody better play ‘Moon River’ near me any time soon. But ultimately when I got really emotional was at the curtain call. Going back to my earlier point, just the emotion that this was a thing that had now been shared that ‘my’ play, the one I’d been banging on and on to anyone who would listen to read, to see, had been shared around the world. And that the cast (and crew) had done an amazing job in making it happen. I was a proud nerd right then.

And this is only Part 1. It’s a different experience seeing them a week apart, but actually I was so drained last night that I was glad of the breather. Is it the same as being in the room? no, but the ‘magic of the theatre’ really did manage to translate across the screen. Even with a short Monkey interlude.

See you on the other side for part 2. The Great Work Begins.

And if anyone can find me the Octopus mug that Roy has in his first scene, I’ll love you forever.

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NT Live: Perestrokia


(First written 28th July 2017)
So after last week’s adventure (see here) as long as there were no Apes involved things could only get better at the second NT Live screening right? Right.

As I saw the production ‘Live’ again this weekend an actual reflection on my continuing thoughts on the play are here, while this post just thinks about NT live and capturing the play on film.

I’m happy to report there were no ‘Apes in America’ this time around, and aside from momentary sound glitches there were no technical issues until the very end…where for about 20 seconds something very strange went on with sound and picture in Harper’s monologue…now I always cry in that scene but it would have been for very different reasons this time. But luckily all was well.

But to continue my NT Live related waffle from the Part 1 review also; a few minor technical glitches are a small price to pay for getting to see these broadcasts. Particularly Angels which by being a) two parts b) extremely in demand (understatement of the year?!) is very hard to see. And for those who didn’t make it, there are Encore screenings in September. And of course, I urge you to go.

And so how was Part 2? firstly, I’ve given up any pretence of this being a ‘real’ review. Like Millennium I found the cinema experience incredibly intense, and that the productions and performances had altered greatly since I saw it in previews. Now here’s a little secret: Perestroika is my favourite. I feel bad, firstly because I spend a lot of time insisting to people that they are in fact one play. And also because for me picking a favourite is akin to picking a favourite child. But if I had children to pick, it would be the weird slightly unhinged one I’d love more. So Perestroika it is.

But what that also means is nearly all of my favourite scenes are in it. Which is a lot to live up to, for someone so emotionally invested. And I think my companion for the evening and frankly anyone around me would agree I got emotionally invested. Now, like Louis I ‘cry way too easily’ but I’ve never been that much of a crier at Angels but this time around I sobbed. There’s no other word for it. At one point I squeaked. An actual honest to god squeak. Part of this I think is the intimate nature of the filming, it’s hard enough to watch everyone go through hell, harder still in close up.

What the broadcasts for me allowed too was a way to notice new things, to relax with the pressure of not using up a ‘chance’ seeing it live off, I could take in moments, lines choices again. And the detail, and although sometimes frustratingly prescriptive camera gaze, forces a noticing of things too. For me though it was the writing that stood out, having now seen it all once I found myself zoning in on Kushner’s writing. Particularly as I know the play backwards and basically ‘hear’ it as I go along, on the revisions in the text (yes I do hear that in the Angel’s voice). For those unfamilar, Kushner has never left the text alone and the latest revised verison was completed in 2011 (barring continued minor tweaks for performace) I know this version the least well. The version committed to my memory is the 2007 version, so it’s fascinating now hearing a slightly altered version of a well loved friend. For me, and my admittedly ridiculous level of knowledge was really fascinating, I was noticing old word I’d forgotten and new tweaks and changes I didn’t know- which sometimes was jarring. In fact it was jarring to the point I must confess I though James McArdle had messed up a line/scene (sorry James, should never have doubted you). Those moments aside though, I just remember a feeling of ‘these words just sing’ and how really remarkable Kushner’s writing is.

For those keeping score, I made it through Act  1, 2 and 3 (Though the combination of Joe’s ‘Then you’ll come back’ and Louis’ ‘I want to see you again’ are like a knife to the heart). I’d forgotten however just how relentless Act 4 is and by the end of that I already felt exhausted. Despite having welled up a few times, I’d kept tears at bay. I should have known it was going to be bad when Nathan Lane got me with his ‘You’ll find what you love will take you farther than you dreamed you’d go’ line…and by the time Prior was confronting the Angels I was gone.

There is a level of intensity and difference the filming brings to the text, and it’s no bad thing. It’s different sure but it doesn’t detract- one element I was worried about was losing some of the ‘magic’ that Marianne Elliot has created with Part 2 that is inherently theatrical. And while in some respects the effects are lessened when viewed through a lens, it’s overall such an intelligently filmed version that what you lose in some ways is gained in others. The chance to be that intimate with the actors in quieter, emotional moments makes up for losing the full impact of some of the theatrical quirks. That said so much of it is captured perfectly, and in fact the view the cameras get from above the Lyttleton circle gives a full view of that expansive stage and Elliot’s use of it that many in the theatre don’t get. I also noticed some beautiful images created on stage that my cheap seats downstairs didn’t show, so there’s a real advantage and beauty to this filming. Finally, when during the Epilogue the camera panned right out, showing Prior on the expanse of stage, house lights up I was truly overwhelmed with both the play, and the way it had been captured.

And once again, for this super nerd, having this play, and particularly this landmark production captured so wonderfully was nothing short of a dream- yes a dream. When I was scrambling around for hints of past productions, using black and white stills and stage manager’s notes. When I was begging an archive to let me in and watch the New York production.

(Here’s a couple of those, including Jason Issacs and Daniel Craig ….for science)

And now it’s preserved forever. And it’s also being put out there for so many more people to see. And that’s why I keep chasing after this play, because it’s important. Because I want people to see. I convinced I think 4 people to see the broadcasts this time, who now all love this play too. So yes, for this nerd it’s preserved, but more importantly it’s been captured and sent out there for other people to hear Kushner’s words sing.

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Flying the Angel of History

Originally written for another website, who didn’t really want it. (6th July 2017)

This piece was originally written for Wales Arts Reivew, which can be found here. This is the longer version of that piece. 
“History is about the crack wide open” warns the Angels to Prior Walter. And history, of Reagan, 80s America and AIDS is certainly on show for all to see in the revival of Angels in America. But why does a play about 1980s America, specifically the title might suggest Gay America resonate still? Is it now a play that is dated?  Is it a historical piece? Set in 1985 and Addressing issues- from AIDS to Cold War Politics that have now receded into the past or given way to new concerns?  When viewed today parts of it seem terrifyingly current. Economic downturns? Extreme right wing political views taking hold? Fear of Russia? Vague but ever present threat of nuclear war? Impending environmental disaster? Granted, when the play was announced a year ago nobody could know we’d have an American President and British Prime Minister who genuinely longed to return to the days of Reagan and Thatcher, or that the threat of war with Russia or nuclear fear like the Cold War would enter our day to day lives again.

The announcement that Angels would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ might suggest. The play in fact received its world premiere at premiered at the National Theatre in 1994, where by a quirk of logistical fate it opened ahead of its Broadway counterpart. It was a hit in the smaller Cottesloe space, and earned theatrical accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the most important and memorable pieces of new work the National has staged, it was no surprise it was included in their 50th Anniversary celebrations, or that Rufus Norris has chosen to revisit the play in his second year in charge of the theatre. This time including a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming then a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself, that the NT has returned to the production on such a scale. Including it in the celebration of 50 years was an indication of its importance to theatrical history.



The epic two-part play, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is described by Kushner as about ‘AIDS, America and Mormons’. This sprawling 7-hour epic takes on not just AIDS, Religion and Gay identity, but the sprawling mass of American politics and history. The play was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts which compelled him to include something about America in his play, and it is in some respects Kushner’s ‘state of the Nation address’. Meanwhile the play still finds time for an analysis of history and philosophy, coupled with often surreal and always fantastical flights into alternative realities. Crafted in the style of ‘Brechtian Epic’ theatre, the plays do not shy away from big set pieces and big ideas that still feel pertinent today. From Louis setting out his stall on the state of America, race and politics- and being challenged to think outside his leftist liberal bubble- today sounding like they might have been lifted from a well-meaning but misguide blog post and resulting comments section. Meanwhile Kushner uses the embodiment of real-life figures Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, to look back on American history as well as the limits of forgiveness and tolerance in us as people. All while also having the audacity to appear to answer the question of what is Heaven? And indeed, who is God? It is grand, far reaching and bold. And it more than stands up as a play as director Marianne Elliot gives it not just ‘more life’ as Prior asks but new life, and does what every good revival should- challenge the very material itself. 



Divided into Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, the play follows Prior Walter, gay man, and newly diagnosed with AIDS, and his boyfriend Louis. Parallel to them, Joe Pitt and his wife Harper struggle with their own relationship issues and Harper’s Valium addiction. Meanwhile Joe, a Clerk of the Chief Justice, is being courted by Roy Cohn, based on the real-life lawyer who worked for McCarthy and Trump, and died of AIDS denying his sexuality to the end. Roy and Joe’s father/son relationship, with undertones of both the sexual and sinister confuses the already conflicted Joe further, as does his encounters with Louis. As part 1 catapults towards conclusion in this fast-paced production, Louis has left Prior and convinces Joe to give in to his impulses and come home with him, while Harper wanders lost in the park and in her delusions. Prior, left alone has had visions, which come to a head in as he says, Spielbergian style with an Angelic visitation.

Kushner’s was one of a wide variety of theatrical works to tackle AIDS, but also the highest profile. His depiction of AIDS in the earliest years of the epidemic is brutal in both its depiction of characters succumbing to illness, but also in the treatment of the wider impact on the lives of those affected by AIDS in the broader sense. He also addresses issues of what it meant to be a gay man in the 1980s across the spectrum; from Louis and Prior’s unapologetic openness to his closeted characters, Joe and Roy. Charm and humour come to Lane easily, and his early scenes and the bullish Cohn at the top of his game are delivered with the kind of impeccable comic timing you’d expect. However, beneath the surface there’s a darkness that is terrifying even in these moments, it’s a balance that Lane wears well in Millennium and by the time he is seen suffering and dying in Perestroika his darkness as a character is clear. Which balances well when, as the audience sees him succumb to the effects of AIDS we ask how we divide our sympathy differently for this truly unsympathetic character. Lane confronted with the challenge of playing the devil of the piece but also in winning an audience over as ultimately Roy’s character becomes a lesson in forgiveness- as Belize says, ‘A Queen can forgive her vanquished foe’ Elsewhere, with Joe Kushner gives us the young man finally coming to terms with his sexuality, but ultimately the sympathies here lean towards his wife Harper. Denise Gough never plays Harper as weak, or a victim, and sometimes sympathies shift to Joe a puppy-like Russell Tovey, battling his own demons of sexuality while trying to still be a good man and ultimately good husband.



Millennium is a naturalistic affair, and is staged as such-often with jarring realism as Roy and Prior succumb to their illness. The stage consists of three main revolves, which at the start separate out into Louis and Prior’s areas, Joe and Harper’s with some no man’s land between. As the play progresses, the set is used cleverly to literally ‘revolve’ them into each other’s worlds, until by the split scene towards the end of Act 3, they have completely bled into each other, and their spaces. A neat parallel to the staging of this scene also returns at the end of Part 2. The simplistic backdrops offer a variety of rooms that adapt to the range of settings across the play- from apartments to park benches, diners and City Hall. A clue to the scale of Part 2 however is a moment when an entire apartment (Roy’s) emerges from the floor, and the metaphor of Roy emerging- and returning- bellow may not be intentional but is apt.

And while the production has gained attention for its star filled cast it truly is an ensemble piece. Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence do a lot of the less glamourous but important work, sharing a variety of characters between them – not least in the case of Lawrence the Angel of the title which is a physical challenge as much as a performance one. Meanwhile, Brown notably as Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg becomes the focus of any scene she is in. Elsewhere Nathan Stewart- Jarret also steals many a laugh and indeed a scene from Nathan Lane with his own camp wit and sharp delivery. Stewart-Jarret shouldn’t be underestimated however as just the comic turn in ex-drag Queen and nurse Belize, as the friend of someone dying of AIDS, and the nurse to a foe he’d rather not treat, there’s a quiet depth to the performance beneath one liners and loud costumes.



The real heart of the piece, and the real challenge to the audience lies Prior, the insight into Kushner’s philosophical reflections yes, but also the heart of the paly as the man we watch succumbing to AIDS. The effect of this hinges largely on the performances of Andrew Garfield as Prior and James McArdle as Louis. Garfield quickly proves he is a natural Prior, balancing heart-breaking performance with a razor-sharp wit. McArdle’s understated but powerful performance as Louis is what really lifts this element of the narrative and the heart of the play however.  as his struggling partner, Louis-  in this scene beyond is increasingly he is a tough character to love, but making the audience understand him adds strength to the conflicted narrative about love and loyalty that Kushner creates. Much of the story hinges on Prior being abandoned by Louis because of his having AIDS, a brave bold choice in Kushner’s writing at any time, but particularly in 1995 when the gay community was still being decimated by AIDS. There is naturally a drive to depict those in the community as wholly good a caring and point the finger only at government, at homophobia, and pharmaceuticals. However in reality many people struggled with their new-found roles as carers, and whether AIDS or any other illness it’s an honest and difficult question to ask, ‘could I cope?’ and a brave narrative choice to have the answer be ‘no’ because the audience still has sympathy for Louis as the one who walks away, because ultimately, we understand him. And because, despite the subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes what Kushner’s play is, and why it stands up 25 years on is that it’s a play about people in all their complexities.


Angels is both one play in two parts and two separate plays, and though both are written in the Brechtian Epic style it is Perestroika in which Elliot truly runs with this style. Millennium’s at times overly-staged format becomes instead a set up for the stripping back, and (almost literal) pulling the rug away from the audience in Part 2 until they are left with a virtually bare stage. This is by no means a simplistic staging and things veer from a piling up of debris on stage, to spectacular intricate moving set pieces, to of course the returning Angel of the title.

The arrival of the Angel, steers Millennium into Part 2, Perestroika a sign of a shift in the world of the play, and the theatricality used to get there. And The daring approach Elliot has taken to staging the Angel, possibly the most difficult question in staging this piece, shows the confidence of a director at the top of her game- the audience thinks they know that Angel. The image of her crashing through the ceiling is probably one of the most famous from the original, and every production since. ‘Very Steven Spielberg’ Prior says just before she arrives, except if it happens as we’d expect, it isn’t. And Elliot knows that. What she delivers instead was jaw-droppingly clever, not just for that one ‘wow’ moment but in how we see the Angel, and indeed who the Angel is for the rest of the play. It’s both clever and terrifying and a perfect insight into Prior’s psyche as he encounters this spectral beast. It’s also in theatrical terms exactly what a big revival like this should do- reinvent, reimagine and give audiences something new. Naturally many an audience at the National will hate it, but it’s entirely possible that was the point.


Perestroika is a theatrical piece, reliant on a director teasing out all the elements that lift it out of what can simply end up a wordy confusing mess without the right steer. Which Elliot manages admirably, particularly when viewed alongside Millennium. Although theatricality drives Perestroika it is not without its moments of honest emotional realism, and that is the gift that is this piece a challenging but rewarding veering between the two pulling the audience along with it.  It’s a confidence of a director to take things this far, but also an acknowledgement that audiences are intelligent, and will engage if you deliver. There is also a confidence present in knowing when to return to the words of the playwright, and trust in the power of the actors. And it is with this the play ends. Stripped back staging as part of the wider metaphor yes, but also offer no distraction from the writing. As set and Angels come and go, and as things within the narrative seem to spiral more and more out of control and into the realm of the supernatural, the stage becomes barer. Subtly the workings of the production are more on show, until, mirroring Kushner’s stage directions for the Angel herself, literal ‘wires show’. Last of all left in all this, is the grey metallic structure that has hung in semi-darkness throughout. And while everything else is stripped to bare stage in theatrical-meta moments, the grey structure remains; it becomes the structure of heaven, which of course has watched over the production, but not illuminated, not interfering, exactly as the Angels of the piece do.


In doing a final battle with the Angel, Prior is released after demanding ‘More Life’ What that ‘More Life’ might mean is ultimately in the hands of the audience, and 25 years after the original naturally some of that meaning, and what is carried out may have changed. It was never about the specifics of the politics for Kushner- he was writing back to the Reagan era as Clinton was elected president. The play looks back on American history, on human history to ask how we might progress. As the Angels fly once again to London’s South Bank, it’s also a fitting reflection on theatrical history, and this production, on the art of theatrical progress. This play was an important landmark in the National Theatre’s history- situating not only an American play, but an American gay play about AIDS on the national stage (in both senses) was a brave and important move. And reviving it remains just as significant. It is still a ‘gay’ story that needs to be heard amid continued homophobia, it’s a story about AIDS and commemorating those lost but remembering the epidemic goes on, albeit in a different way. But is also still a play that speaks very much to our current times, and to humanity.

More however than a place in theatrical history, this now historical piece has themes which resonate strongly in the contemporary setting. We have only to hear Louis say ‘You’re scared. So am I. Everyone is in the land of the free. God help us all.’ Or hear Joe’s almost blind defence of his voting choice ‘Ronald Reagan is a good man’ to feel we know these characters in our present time still.  And, any question of whether the politics apply only to an American audience are surely silenced when Nathan Stewart Jarret stops the show with the applause following his “There’s a nursing shortage, I’m in a Union, I’m real scared” proving that the play evolves to fit the current times also. Elsewhere, the sentiments on race in America feel shockingly current, and though holes in the ozone layer no longer threaten, the themes of environmental apocalypse still resonate. It may now be 17 years since the new Millennium, not 15 before as in the play, but the world of Kushner’ America, and indeed the world, is familiar.


In doing a final battle with the Angel, Prior is released after demanding ‘More Life’ What that ‘More Life’ might mean is ultimately in the hands of the audience, and 25 years after the original naturally some of that meaning, and what is carried out may have changed. It was never about the specifics of the politics for Kushner- he was writing back to the Reagan era as Clinton was elected president. Like Louis in the play Kushner is concerned with the bigger picture, the idea again as Prior concludes ‘We will be citizens’. Grand yes, fitting with the scale of the piece certainly, and finally effective.