Our Town- Royal Exchange Manchester

It seems everyone has a first memory of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Mine, in typical style is mildly embarrassing and reveals me to be the uncultured swine I so often am. It was my third year in University, which happened to be my ‘Study Abroad’ year. So I find myself in an introduction to theatre class at McGill, with the Professor (you have to call them that there I discovered even if they aren’t a proper Prof like at home) holds up a book (this was 2004, we’re old school) and asked what the famous image was from, a work that was of great importance he said, it changed American theatre he said.

He looked at me. 
“Oklahoma” I said. 
I actually have no idea why. Actually I do, they were all dressed in farm clothes on a stage and that was literally the only play about being on a farm in America I knew. Also I’m an uncultured swine. (In my defence I hadn’t studied theatre since GCSE at this point) 
So my ‘Out Town’ first encounter story is not a particularly rose-tinted one of discovering this theatrical masterpiece, more mild embarrassment and slinking down in my seat. However, as the Royal Exchange’s programme notes indicate, a formative work for so many theatre makers. Why? probably because it encompasses both parts of theatre making so perfectly- the magic of the theatre with the humanity of the stories we tell.

The setting in the round at the Exchange works perfectly and brutally for the exposure of the humanity of it all. Keeping the lights up and engaging with the audience throughout makes it clear that ‘Our Town’ is very much ‘your town’ as an audience. Incidentally the warm welcome and vocal ‘hello’ the Stage Manager gets at the start is possibly very much indicative of this being Manchester not London. It in fact seems the perfect set up for this welcoming of Cities, where the actors spend all of the pre-show period sat chatting with their onstage seated neighbours. It was a delight to play spot the actor but also relish in the easy manner in which people were chatting as they sat on their tables looking like they were indeed coming for a town meeting of some sort. And you have to wonder how much of this working is to do with the Manchester setting- it’s hard to imagine some of London’s stuffier audiences warming to that, but here it works and it feels like something you could drop down in many regional cities and foster this small town in a large town feeling that the setting generates. From the opening monologue then that includes ‘Manchester in 2017’ it already feels like ‘Our town’ is indeed ‘our town’ at this moment. 

All of this frames the play as a part of where we are now, rather than the historical setting it’s placed in. Stripping it back from the Hallmark-styled productions that Wilder himself hated, we get the bones of the production and with it the characters stripped back to their bare humanity. 
It’s too easy to strip Wilder’s play back to just a small reflection on the lives of the townsfolk. But that’s not to say it can’t be also enjoyed for that. Indeed, enjoying the early scenes for their humour and charm only serves to strengthen the emotional punch that the play builds to. So why not sit back, enjoy the quirky humour of the townsfolk and the innovative setting and moving of actors and furniture for Act 1? because actually if you let the small town charm wash over like an episode of Gilmore Girls, the punch it packs at the end is all the more powerful. 
This staging suits it effortlessly, stylised without feeling gimmicky, it moves the story along at a pace and makes the stage come alive with the bustling of  the town. And the engagement with the audience works perfectly. The blurring of lines between fiction and the ‘real world’ works beautifully especially when it’s revealed there are yet more actors scattered around that we didn’t know of. (Member of the wonderful Royal Exchange Company of Elders). The in-the-round setting of the Exchange lends itself perfectly to this stripped out approach, looking your fellow audience member in eye adds to the community feel and when the Stage Manager asks you to introduce yourself to the person next to you, it feels like fostering that community further. And for me an outsider to this town that it was staged in also felt like being oddly welcomed by the world of the theatre too.

The key thing about Our Town is the pace at which it whips by. Wilder’s commentary on life stretched across the play. No sooner are we settled into a scene than it’s stopped, moved on  to a next one. Time is narrated and years lost in a line. Characters we think we will like are glimpsed but hardly seen again. The moments it feels like it slows enough to catch breath are moments of music in the church with that repeated refrain of ‘Blest be the tie that binds’. Punctuating the play and sung each night at the interval by a guest choir, it is a moment of pause and a refrain to pull the town and the audience into focus, and it’s done beautifully here building towards the final heartbreaking rendition.

The church choir also reveals one of this production’s hidden gems- the incorporation of BSL and a D/deaf actor into the show. I’d actually spotted Nadia Nadarajah chatting outside in BSL so it wasn’t a surprise when she joined in with the chorus of singing in her own language, but it was a beautiful moment of theatre. To see a performer fully incorporated on a leading theatre’s main stage using BSL, her character still the same as written by Wilder with the exception of how she communicates, proving that this shouldn’t be a barrier to performers or audiences. Sarah Frankom makes this an inclusive performance seamlessly- some of what she says is ‘translated’ through repetition by the other actors, but other elements are left in BSL alone, and the audience understands, both the words and her character. Anyone who says that we can’t make inclusive performance should look at this. Most importantly, artistically Nadarjah’s use of BSL is integral to showing ‘Our Town’ as full of the kind of ‘real’ people that would populate it.  Having a D/deaf character using BSL is a part of representing diversity as colour blind casting, or having wheelchair users on stage. It’s an element of who they are but doesn’t define their character, and in a play like Our Town that is all about the people who make up our town and our world, it’s a natural addition to the text.

Act One of the play is that whipped along frenzy of meeting half of the town, reminiscent of sweeping shots that open a film or TV show where characters are introduced in quick succession. We get absorbed into the world before we’re delivered to the heart of the story. And the actors across it rise to the occasion. From Graeme Hawley’s somewhat cheeky affable Mr Webb who feels like a man trying his best in an ever confusing world, to Carla Henry gives us a quiet sadness as Mrs Gibbs who longs for her vacation to Paris. While the young lovers Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez-Holden are heartbreaking charming and later simply heartbreaking. Of course it is the narrator we really get to know and Yousesef Kerkour is formidable in his command of the actors and audience but also charming and engaging from the off. He reigns in the audience and pulls them along at his speed giving them a tour of his actors and his town. The ensemble works tightly together, and there’s not a beat missed in some tight direction and movement that weaves the world together on the bare stage

There is a warmth and sadness to the story of the young lovers. On one hand we feel for their young love, as with a rom-com we will them together. But also we’re aware of their youth and wasted opportunity as their young marriage approaches. We feel the regret of the older characters, of lives lost, but are also won over by the charms of their young love.

Of course as with life, it’s the final act that will break your heart. The weight of life catches up with everyone in the town. And the question of death looms in the air. As with the rest of the production it’s subtly and beautifully executed and the half-lit auditorium gives the audience nowhere to hide. As the play draws to a close there’s a stunning moment of theatricality that in the stripped down backdrop is stunning and well earned. Wilder’s words alone will move you to tears but the visual picture Frankcom has been building to is enchantingly overwhelming and moving. And while there is a moment of feeling like your heart is being ripped out and that things may never be quite right, the production gives you back a sense of hope to close. A sense that you can go and reclaim what the characters might have lost- that appreciation of the moment, and it invites you to do it in your town. 

Cast Notes 2




Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg – Susan Brown



Hannah ends up being the character we all wish we could grow up into. But there’s a complex and fascinating character under the Mormon-Mother bluster and the sensible non-nonsense approach to life. Susan Brown’s Hannah is a sensitive and incredibly human portrayal of that woman.
Brown firstly takes on a variety of roles including opening both parts of the play as the Rabbi and the Bolshevik, and later as Roy’s Doctor Henry. It is a clever framing device of Kushner’s to place all the powerful men (bar Roy) as a woman (another, Joseph Heller is played by Gough- relevant because of the scene’s influence on Joe’s life). As both the Rabbi and the Bolshevik Brown gets the kind of sweeping religious and political proclamations usually reserved for the speeches of men. More than that however, to take from Kushner’s comments on the matter himself, there is a sense of fun to it. With the Bolshevik opening the sprawling Perestroika there is a clear sense of a twinkle in the eye and a sense of fun.   And Brown really relishes both roles- unrecognisable under beard, hair and some impressive hats, she completely disappears. There is of course an underlying serious point to this casting, and a certain gravitas and importance to the speeches which set the tone for each part- the Rabbi’s foreshadowing and reflecting on death, the Bolshevik talking about orders collapsing and rebuilding. But as with all of Kushner’s writing there is a wit to the wisdom and Brown really plays with that. The weight of opening these mammoth plays also could not have fallen on a better member of the company- there is a surety and security in her opening monologues that seems to anchor the plays before they each veer off in their respective and often unwieldy directions. Such an experienced actress centres the audience first, pulling and settling their attention before the plays unravel again. And there’s much to be said for a ‘safe pair of hands’ in a play such as this.
Another unusual challenge for Brown to rise to is playing Ethel Rosenberg. Possibly a slightly kinder challenge in a 2017 British revival than the original Broadway production. Ethel Rosenberg, infamously tried and executed for espionage, their lives have now entered far enough into history to allow an actor some breathing space. However, embodying not only a version of a historical figure (like Roy Kushner is at pains to point out this is a fictionalised version) but the slightly vengeful ghost of one is quite the challenge. Ethel works best with an edge of darkness and mystery to her. Created out of Roy’s delusions, she has a part of him, and a mirror to Angel to Prior, so there is a sense she could just be the person Roy believes her to be. That she isn’t entirely tells the audience deep down even Roy had doubt. Ethel becomes a strange mixture of adversary and a kind of maternal figure to Roy- again a nice mirror to Hannah’s caring for Prior. While Hannah sits by to help Prior through, Ethel sits on death-watch. The undercurrent to her watching, willing his end not just in the sense of his death, but his demise as a lawyer, is an undercurrent of Roy himself- the dark, vindictive elements he enacted on others seen in Ethel now.
Brown plays this perfectly balanced between the darker edge of revenge to Ethel, but maintaining the endearing air of the ‘Jewish Mamas’ Roy compares her too, not that the audience needs it- an enemy of Roy’s is easily the friend of the audience. But Brown charms and endears Ethel to us anyway, she’s funny- from marvelling at the modern technology of push-button phones, to a knowing look as she walks through a wall. It is easy to lose the sense of fun and whimsy to Kushner’s writing in all the heavier plot points. And Ethel doesn’t naturally seem the place for that, but actually she’s a character full of subtle winks, nods and yes a sense of mischief and fun. In playing her with a glint in her eye Brown brings a comedy to the role, a sort of subtle dare I say Britishness to this American villain that’s a perfect counter to the big broader strokes that Nathan Lane employs. Brown plays the quirks and the cleverness of Ethel- she plays the situation, and she plays Roy enjoying his suffering but treading the line of cruelty carefully that he always crosses. But her lines are delivered in such a knowing way it makes it feel as if Roy the puppeteer used to pulling the strings, has had things switched and he is obvious. The final scene, in which she recites the Kaddish with Louis, retains this- yes there is forgiveness, absolution and a real weight to the act of giving forgiveness to someone who wronged you so horrendously. But the final ‘yousonofabitch’ is delivered with that same twinkle- this Ethel is already free now Roy has gone, and she forgives enough to offer prayer, but not unconditionally.
With these three characters to content with Brown is already delivering a masterclass in character acting, let alone quick changes and wigs. Added to that a stint as Henry, Roy’s Doctor in which she breaks down the AIDS epidemic as we understand it at the point the play is set, and firmly put Roy in his place. It is however as Hannah; Joe’s Mormon Mother from Salt Lake City that Susan Brown really gets to shine.
Meeting her when Joe phones from Central Park, drunk, and tells her he’s gay. In her brusque rejection, and the immortal line ‘You’re old enough to know your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it’ serves as a perfect jumping off point for the change Hannah goes under. As the brusque Mormon she is perfect, as impenetrable as the hairdo that Prior will later make fun of. Sharp tongued and cutting Brown delivers lines with a biting and icy element that is a clear armour for things that remain a mystery very much to the audience, but serve to draw us in and endear us to her even before she begins to shift and show us chinks in Hannah’s armour.
Hannah is a fish out of water character who manages to cultivate her world to mimic what she is used to for much of the play. She creates a world of Joe’s apartment and the Mormon visitor centre and attempts to rebuild the world for her daughter in law and estranged Son. And while Joe may see it as a mark of weakness when he shouts, ‘She sold her house’ there is something so brave in Hannah’s actions. A woman used to a sheltered existence of Salt Lake abandons everything she knows to cross the country and try and save her Son. Her reasons for doing so on one level maybe questionable- the religious and moral teaching she believes he is betraying- but it is an act of love, one that unfortunately Joe doesn’t appreciate or understand. It’s this conflicted place that Brown plays so well, the sheer humanity of Hannah is heart-breaking. She finds herself stranded, in New York, trying to deal with Harper, to find her son, and with no real long-term plan. Brown gives her an armour of the auspicious day to day, functioning with authority in the Mormon visitor centre, getting Harper dressed and a sense that she is just about holding onto control, and desperately trying not to betray it. When Prior annoys her in the visitor centre, disrupting the already tenuous order her cry of ‘I’ve got problems of my own’ lets out all that has been tied up until now- a barely managed and desperate holding onto control under a conservative suit.
While brusque and auspicious on the outside there is from the outset a clear tender and caring nature to Brown’s Hannah. She is something of a reluctant Mother-figure but there is a sense she better understands the others she takes on- Harper, Prior- rather than her own son. In the scene where Hannah dresses Harper, brushing her hair and attempting to make her presentable, it is on the outside another of Hannah’s defence mechanisms- presenting an image is as good as making things right- but Brown makes it tender, caring despite a sense that Hannah herself resists such sentimental overtures. It’s the resistance of this Brown plays pitch-perfect when she accompanies Prior to the hospital. You sense the conflict within her- the aversion to sentiment, a fear of the unknown in Prior, what he represents and his illness- but also underlying caring nature that she cannot fight. It’s an unsentimental and almost basic in its execution- there’s no great tears or hugs, indeed she barely touches Prior but there is something incredibly intimate in the reserved, cautious Hannah crossing that barrier to touch Prior’s illness-marked skin. Up against Andrew Garfield’s high-energy, high-strung portrayal of Prior, the energy Brown brings to this scene pulls him down with her to a quiet intimacy that really balanced his portrayal of Prior and gave the audience an invaluable glimpse into what was going on inside. This scene is an illustration of the power of Brown’s performance, such an experienced and intelligent performer working with another and bringing out something new, and the best in their respective characters. In a play filled with big moments, and heart-breaking moments of huge magnitude it’s easy to overlook this scene as a link between others. What Brown does here elevate it to its proper place as one of the most heart-breaking and important moments in the play in terms of character development and transition.
Development as a character is key to Hannah, and where Brown’s incredibly human portrayal of her shines. From the woman who shouted, ‘You’re being ridiculous’ down the phone at Joe, to one who stands up to him. To the woman who slept in the chair to help a man she barely knew. On one hand Hannah has all of this in her all along- as we all do- but she changes slowly and painfully across the play. As Kushner himself describes, and it comes about slowly and through a painful letting go of her home, her son (for now at least), and letting in a whole host of new ideas. Therefore, although we hear little from her at the Epilogue, Hannah is in fact the most changed. From her clothes, her demeanour she has embraced New York and her new ‘family’ in Prior, Louis and Belize. This Hannah stands strong alongside the boys she has befriended, still maternal- we still imagine her caring for Prior in her own way, in the way she couldn’t for her own Son. And while she’s ‘harder’ in her look of a ‘New Yorker’ she’s also softened, feeling like a woman who has accepted a new life and version of herself. Brown conveys this with a quiet confidence in which she inhabits the scene, often in the background, not vying for position or ‘air time’ or indeed Prior’s attention like Belize and Louis. A quiet constant presence and reassuring and assured but there is a shift, whereas before Brown gave Hannah an air of being slightly out of step with the world, the scene, she inhabits, now she occupies that space fully, confidently without having to shout.  
The Angel/Emily- Amanda Lawrence

Taking on the most altered of roles in this revival Amanda Lawrence must contend with not only being the strangest of Kushner’s characters, but also the puppetry and movement Elliot weaves into the character. It’s a big ask of any performance, but especially incorporating the strange and at times incomprehensible dialogue and motivations of the mysterious Angel.
As a counter to the Angel’s weirdness and majesty Lawrence also takes on the down-to-earth in every sense Nurse Emily. As Emily Lawrence offers quirky but real in contrast to her Angel’s quirky and out there (literally). She’s business like and gives a sense, under the witty one-liners, of the weight of her role as a nurse at the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic. She delivers the ‘You his uhh’ line to Louis for the first time with the level of insult that betrays- James McArdle playing off it perfectly, showing his hurt at not having a name for what he is. These are the levels to Nurse Emily that Lawrence begins to chip away at- she’s busy, pressured and knows what she’s talking about. The edge to some of her lines, when she has a ‘waiting room full’ conveys the stresses and strains of what she is undertaking. One step removed from the situation, unlike Belize who has personal investment, gives her a distance, a sharpness and a feeling she is fighting battles unseen as well.  Finally, when Prior returns ‘from the dead’ the happiness of Emily for her patient is a rare moment of respite for those caretakers of the Epidemic.
The key to Lawrence’s Angel is that she brings out the human in the mythical creature. The Angel is made of Prior, she’s part of him and a reflection of him, and though she is mythical and strange, she is also incredibly human. Lawrence’s Angel is quirky and funny, which gives her an endearing quality even while at the extremes of the in-compressible elements of her dialogue and performance. It would have been possible, in all the movement and puppetry, to lose elements of the Angel’s character, but Lawrence has a quirky style that permeates all the trappings of the Angel. It’s an element of the writing that’s often missed-if the Angel grows out of Prior, and Prior is generally a witty funny character, why isn’t the Angel? Lawrence finds that in her, and the campy elements of the Angel, reflect Prior’s campy humour- both use it as a defense and a weapon when needed, but both are also just funny creatures of the world. The Angel is also, in principle and action, a terrifying creature. We the audience respond as Prior does when she first arrives- in horror and fear. And while she is still an element to be feared, she is also something familiar, with humanity that Lawrence brings a warmth to. Amid all she does to Prior, there’s a feeling of loss and fear to the Angel herself. 

Amid all the choreographed movement Lawrence has a quirky movement style that is all her own. To make it feel organic and authentic while giant wings and a team of ‘shadows’ propel you is a mark of the work that went into creating the Angel’s flight. It feels instead of her being winched in on a wire, as is usual, that this movement is natural- even though it is created in a ‘theatrical’ manner. 
There’s reason, and thought behind every movement, from the way she towers over Prior through to the way she playfully nudges him forward with a wing in Heaven. There is a lovely moment in Heaven where stripped of the wings now Lawrence gets a moment as the Angel free from the choreography and her ‘Shadows’ and she delivers the Angel’s response to Prior with a heartfelt poetry that reminds the audience that under all the spectacle she has been doing some spectacular work as this enigmatic creature. Here Lawrence shows the audience how she has been mirroring Garfield’s Prior for the rest of the performance. As Prior has raged and fought against his illness so the Angel has been literally ‘sky high’ and fighting, so has she. Now they play a tennis match of line delivery, bouncing back and forth this final argument, but Lawrence- like Brown in a previous scene- mediates, or umpires the match giving Garfield something different to bounce off. In shifting her Angel, she shifts Prior, they mirror and ricochet and it works. 

Cast Notes 2




Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg – Susan Brown



Hannah ends up being the character we all wish we could grow up into. But there’s a complex and fascinating character under the Mormon-Mother bluster and the sensible non-nonsense approach to life. Susan Brown’s Hannah is a sensitive and incredibly human portrayal of that woman.
Brown firstly takes on a variety of roles including opening both parts of the play as the Rabbi and the Bolshevik, and later as Roy’s Doctor Henry. It is a clever framing device of Kushner’s to place all the powerful men (bar Roy) as a woman (another, Joseph Heller is played by Gough- relevant because of the scene’s influence on Joe’s life). As both the Rabbi and the Bolshevik Brown gets the kind of sweeping religious and political proclamations usually reserved for the speeches of men. More than that however, to take from Kushner’s comments on the matter himself, there is a sense of fun to it. With the Bolshevik opening the sprawling Perestroika there is a clear sense of a twinkle in the eye and a sense of fun.   And Brown really relishes both roles- unrecognisable under beard, hair and some impressive hats, she completely disappears. There is of course an underlying serious point to this casting, and a certain gravitas and importance to the speeches which set the tone for each part- the Rabbi’s foreshadowing and reflecting on death, the Bolshevik talking about orders collapsing and rebuilding. But as with all of Kushner’s writing there is a wit to the wisdom and Brown really plays with that. The weight of opening these mammoth plays also could not have fallen on a better member of the company- there is a surety and security in her opening monologues that seems to anchor the plays before they each veer off in their respective and often unwieldy directions. Such an experienced actress centres the audience first, pulling and settling their attention before the plays unravel again. And there’s much to be said for a ‘safe pair of hands’ in a play such as this.
Another unusual challenge for Brown to rise to is playing Ethel Rosenberg. Possibly a slightly kinder challenge in a 2017 British revival than the original Broadway production. Ethel Rosenberg, infamously tried and executed for espionage, their lives have now entered far enough into history to allow an actor some breathing space. However, embodying not only a version of a historical figure (like Roy Kushner is at pains to point out this is a fictionalised version) but the slightly vengeful ghost of one is quite the challenge. Ethel works best with an edge of darkness and mystery to her. Created out of Roy’s delusions, she has a part of him, and a mirror to Angel to Prior, so there is a sense she could just be the person Roy believes her to be. That she isn’t entirely tells the audience deep down even Roy had doubt. Ethel becomes a strange mixture of adversary and a kind of maternal figure to Roy- again a nice mirror to Hannah’s caring for Prior. While Hannah sits by to help Prior through, Ethel sits on death-watch. The undercurrent to her watching, willing his end not just in the sense of his death, but his demise as a lawyer, is an undercurrent of Roy himself- the dark, vindictive elements he enacted on others seen in Ethel now.
Brown plays this perfectly balanced between the darker edge of revenge to Ethel, but maintaining the endearing air of the ‘Jewish Mamas’ Roy compares her too, not that the audience needs it- an enemy of Roy’s is easily the friend of the audience. But Brown charms and endears Ethel to us anyway, she’s funny- from marvelling at the modern technology of push-button phones, to a knowing look as she walks through a wall. It is easy to lose the sense of fun and whimsy to Kushner’s writing in all the heavier plot points. And Ethel doesn’t naturally seem the place for that, but actually she’s a character full of subtle winks, nods and yes a sense of mischief and fun. In playing her with a glint in her eye Brown brings a comedy to the role, a sort of subtle dare I say Britishness to this American villain that’s a perfect counter to the big broader strokes that Nathan Lane employs. Brown plays the quirks and the cleverness of Ethel- she plays the situation, and she plays Roy enjoying his suffering but treading the line of cruelty carefully that he always crosses. But her lines are delivered in such a knowing way it makes it feel as if Roy the puppeteer used to pulling the strings, has had things switched and he is obvious. The final scene, in which she recites the Kaddish with Louis, retains this- yes there is forgiveness, absolution and a real weight to the act of giving forgiveness to someone who wronged you so horrendously. But the final ‘yousonofabitch’ is delivered with that same twinkle- this Ethel is already free now Roy has gone, and she forgives enough to offer prayer, but not unconditionally.
With these three characters to content with Brown is already delivering a masterclass in character acting, let alone quick changes and wigs. Added to that a stint as Henry, Roy’s Doctor in which she breaks down the AIDS epidemic as we understand it at the point the play is set, and firmly put Roy in his place. It is however as Hannah; Joe’s Mormon Mother from Salt Lake City that Susan Brown really gets to shine.
Meeting her when Joe phones from Central Park, drunk, and tells her he’s gay. In her brusque rejection, and the immortal line ‘You’re old enough to know your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it’ serves as a perfect jumping off point for the change Hannah goes under. As the brusque Mormon she is perfect, as impenetrable as the hairdo that Prior will later make fun of. Sharp tongued and cutting Brown delivers lines with a biting and icy element that is a clear armour for things that remain a mystery very much to the audience, but serve to draw us in and endear us to her even before she begins to shift and show us chinks in Hannah’s armour.
Hannah is a fish out of water character who manages to cultivate her world to mimic what she is used to for much of the play. She creates a world of Joe’s apartment and the Mormon visitor centre and attempts to rebuild the world for her daughter in law and estranged Son. And while Joe may see it as a mark of weakness when he shouts, ‘She sold her house’ there is something so brave in Hannah’s actions. A woman used to a sheltered existence of Salt Lake abandons everything she knows to cross the country and try and save her Son. Her reasons for doing so on one level maybe questionable- the religious and moral teaching she believes he is betraying- but it is an act of love, one that unfortunately Joe doesn’t appreciate or understand. It’s this conflicted place that Brown plays so well, the sheer humanity of Hannah is heart-breaking. She finds herself stranded, in New York, trying to deal with Harper, to find her son, and with no real long-term plan. Brown gives her an armour of the auspicious day to day, functioning with authority in the Mormon visitor centre, getting Harper dressed and a sense that she is just about holding onto control, and desperately trying not to betray it. When Prior annoys her in the visitor centre, disrupting the already tenuous order her cry of ‘I’ve got problems of my own’ lets out all that has been tied up until now- a barely managed and desperate holding onto control under a conservative suit.
While brusque and auspicious on the outside there is from the outset a clear tender and caring nature to Brown’s Hannah. She is something of a reluctant Mother-figure but there is a sense she better understands the others she takes on- Harper, Prior- rather than her own son. In the scene where Hannah dresses Harper, brushing her hair and attempting to make her presentable, it is on the outside another of Hannah’s defence mechanisms- presenting an image is as good as making things right- but Brown makes it tender, caring despite a sense that Hannah herself resists such sentimental overtures. It’s the resistance of this Brown plays pitch-perfect when she accompanies Prior to the hospital. You sense the conflict within her- the aversion to sentiment, a fear of the unknown in Prior, what he represents and his illness- but also underlying caring nature that she cannot fight. It’s an unsentimental and almost basic in its execution- there’s no great tears or hugs, indeed she barely touches Prior but there is something incredibly intimate in the reserved, cautious Hannah crossing that barrier to touch Prior’s illness-marked skin. Up against Andrew Garfield’s high-energy, high-strung portrayal of Prior, the energy Brown brings to this scene pulls him down with her to a quiet intimacy that really balanced his portrayal of Prior and gave the audience an invaluable glimpse into what was going on inside. This scene is an illustration of the power of Brown’s performance, such an experienced and intelligent performer working with another and bringing out something new, and the best in their respective characters. In a play filled with big moments, and heart-breaking moments of huge magnitude it’s easy to overlook this scene as a link between others. What Brown does here elevate it to its proper place as one of the most heart-breaking and important moments in the play in terms of character development and transition.
Development as a character is key to Hannah, and where Brown’s incredibly human portrayal of her shines. From the woman who shouted, ‘You’re being ridiculous’ down the phone at Joe, to one who stands up to him. To the woman who slept in the chair to help a man she barely knew. On one hand Hannah has all of this in her all along- as we all do- but she changes slowly and painfully across the play. As Kushner himself describes, and it comes about slowly and through a painful letting go of her home, her son (for now at least), and letting in a whole host of new ideas. Therefore, although we hear little from her at the Epilogue, Hannah is in fact the most changed. From her clothes, her demeanour she has embraced New York and her new ‘family’ in Prior, Louis and Belize. This Hannah stands strong alongside the boys she has befriended, still maternal- we still imagine her caring for Prior in her own way, in the way she couldn’t for her own Son. And while she’s ‘harder’ in her look of a ‘New Yorker’ she’s also softened, feeling like a woman who has accepted a new life and version of herself. Brown conveys this with a quiet confidence in which she inhabits the scene, often in the background, not vying for position or ‘air time’ or indeed Prior’s attention like Belize and Louis. A quiet constant presence and reassuring and assured but there is a shift, whereas before Brown gave Hannah an air of being slightly out of step with the world, the scene, she inhabits, now she occupies that space fully, confidently without having to shout.  
The Angel/Emily- Amanda Lawrence

Taking on the most altered of roles in this revival Amanda Lawrence must contend with not only being the strangest of Kushner’s characters, but also the puppetry and movement Elliot weaves into the character. It’s a big ask of any performance, but especially incorporating the strange and at times incomprehensible dialogue and motivations of the mysterious Angel.
As a counter to the Angel’s weirdness and majesty Lawrence also takes on the down-to-earth in every sense Nurse Emily. As Emily Lawrence offers quirky but real in contrast to her Angel’s quirky and out there (literally). She’s business like and gives a sense, under the witty one-liners, of the weight of her role as a nurse at the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic. She delivers the ‘You his uhh’ line to Louis for the first time with the level of insult that betrays- James McArdle playing off it perfectly, showing his hurt at not having a name for what he is. These are the levels to Nurse Emily that Lawrence begins to chip away at- she’s busy, pressured and knows what she’s talking about. The edge to some of her lines, when she has a ‘waiting room full’ conveys the stresses and strains of what she is undertaking. One step removed from the situation, unlike Belize who has personal investment, gives her a distance, a sharpness and a feeling she is fighting battles unseen as well.  Finally, when Prior returns ‘from the dead’ the happiness of Emily for her patient is a rare moment of respite for those caretakers of the Epidemic.
The key to Lawrence’s Angel is that she brings out the human in the mythical creature. The Angel is made of Prior, she’s part of him and a reflection of him, and though she is mythical and strange, she is also incredibly human. Lawrence’s Angel is quirky and funny, which gives her an endearing quality even while at the extremes of the in-compressible elements of her dialogue and performance. It would have been possible, in all the movement and puppetry, to lose elements of the Angel’s character, but Lawrence has a quirky style that permeates all the trappings of the Angel. It’s an element of the writing that’s often missed-if the Angel grows out of Prior, and Prior is generally a witty funny character, why isn’t the Angel? Lawrence finds that in her, and the campy elements of the Angel, reflect Prior’s campy humour- both use it as a defense and a weapon when needed, but both are also just funny creatures of the world. The Angel is also, in principle and action, a terrifying creature. We the audience respond as Prior does when she first arrives- in horror and fear. And while she is still an element to be feared, she is also something familiar, with humanity that Lawrence brings a warmth to. Amid all she does to Prior, there’s a feeling of loss and fear to the Angel herself. 

Amid all the choreographed movement Lawrence has a quirky movement style that is all her own. To make it feel organic and authentic while giant wings and a team of ‘shadows’ propel you is a mark of the work that went into creating the Angel’s flight. It feels instead of her being winched in on a wire, as is usual, that this movement is natural- even though it is created in a ‘theatrical’ manner. 
There’s reason, and thought behind every movement, from the way she towers over Prior through to the way she playfully nudges him forward with a wing in Heaven. There is a lovely moment in Heaven where stripped of the wings now Lawrence gets a moment as the Angel free from the choreography and her ‘Shadows’ and she delivers the Angel’s response to Prior with a heartfelt poetry that reminds the audience that under all the spectacle she has been doing some spectacular work as this enigmatic creature. Here Lawrence shows the audience how she has been mirroring Garfield’s Prior for the rest of the performance. As Prior has raged and fought against his illness so the Angel has been literally ‘sky high’ and fighting, so has she. Now they play a tennis match of line delivery, bouncing back and forth this final argument, but Lawrence- like Brown in a previous scene- mediates, or umpires the match giving Garfield something different to bounce off. In shifting her Angel, she shifts Prior, they mirror and ricochet and it works. 

Cast and Characters Part 1

Honestly I’ve been using this as a bit of a writing excercie to get myself out of a rut. But some people asked for takes on the actors/their choices with the characters so here are some notes….(more to follow)

Denise Gough- Harper
There is a part of me that believe Denise Gough just sort of arrives fully formed at perfection in her acting roles. And while I know that can’t be true I kind of want it to be true. Her Harper, a bit like McArdle’s Louis is everything I didn’t know she was but needed her to be. Gough’s Harper is tough, and she’s sharp around the edges, which makes her more vulnerable when she needs to be.
Her Harper is a ‘fighty’ one.  It’s easy to play Harper as slightly broken and a bit demure. But a Harper with some bite (and not just in pulling down trees) is even more tragic in the first part, and even more hopeful in the second. If your Harper is going down, being beaten by her addiction, her Husband’s secret life, her past, her lack of child-it’s easy to just play the despair, but Gough plays Harper as someone being swallowed up by that black hole but fighting all the way. Yes she disappears into her dreams, that’s her escape- everyone needs that- but the rest of the time she’s fighting to hold on to her marriage, to herself and to keep whatever other secrets and past from taking hold. It would be easy to just play the woman slipped into passive drug addiction, but never once does everything that’s led to that slip from Gough’s grasp.
There’s also a real self-awareness to her Harper. She knows what her problems are and it’s like we’re watching her watch herself get dragged down into them with eyes wide open. And that’s terrifying, and incredibly sad. She knows she’s losing her grip, and for a long time there’s nothing she can do about it. But when she’s finally able to she lifts the audience along with here. There’s an element of the ‘threshold of revelation’ that is all the weird dreams and escapes also being Harper’s crystal-clear awareness of her situation- but without self-pity. She also plays a genuine love and affection for Joe- again without self-pity- that makes the loneliness of Part 1 feel even more raw, but also makes her escape from him more triumphant.
It’s a little detail but I love that Gough cut her hair into a pixie cut. Not just because I have that haircut and I think more women should rock it (and she does) but because that was a neat little character choice- the short-haired Harper out of step with Fashion, probably had it cut like that in Salt Lake and kept it that way. She’s not girly, not ‘into’ clothes or fashion because she’s presumably never been exposed to much of that. And there’s a certain nod to ‘will Joe prefer it if I have short hair’ (as much as I hate the short-haired-girls-like-boys analogy it’s certainly one at play here). It also plays into a narrative where she takes some ownership of how she looks- for appearances I’m sure Joe would prefer a girly looking wife. Harper’s unkempt ‘tomboy’ look feels like a defiance of the Mormon wife look, and what Joe would like to hide behind.  And that Gough presumably cut it once then let it grow across the run left her with a slightly unruly crop that worked for a woman for whom a cut and blow dry wouldn’t be top of the list.
Gough plays the love and humanity of Harper’s story, rather than the Mormon or drug addiction sides that can eclipse her as a person. Harper is also a centre point of the story- something easily lost with a (dare I say it) lesser actor and director. I’m not usually one for playing this card but I don’t think it’s coincidence that a production directed by a woman puts Harper firmly in the centre of the story. Because she is at the centre- the story comes ‘through’ her as much as Prior- she’s actually Prior’s counterpoint. And instead of losing her to the ‘poor wife’ in the ‘gay story’ we actually see her as equal with Prior- they’re both ill in different ways, both abandoned in different ways (and then ultimately by the same cheating couple) and they’ve both lost their way. The fact also that I felt Harper’s loss of a child/want for a child as a driver more than in any other incarnation, as well as whatever she had gone through at home. There was a real sensitivity to the way Gough delivered (and Elliot directed) that felt a real sensitivity to the way women experience the world.

Roy- Nathan Lane.
Firstly, hands up- I wasn’t excited about the Lane casting. I know a lot of people partly went to see the play because they wanted to see Nathan Lane on stage and that’s perfectly valid- I’ve previously done that. But for me he wasn’t a ‘Roy’. I commend what he did, particularly in Part 2 but personally I still rest on the side of ‘wouldn’t be my choice’.
This for me came into sharp relief on re-watching the HBO version, where Al Pacino as Roy stops being ‘Al Pacino’ after probably the first scene and melts into Roy. For me Lane never quite disappears into his character in the same way. His ‘Nathan Lane’ ness works really well for Roy, the evil end of the Max Bialystock spectrum works perfectly in fact for the jokey-but-evil Roy of Part 1. And the confidence of an actor who knows exactly how to work an audience translates in fact to Roy working his own audience of Joe within the play. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the portrayal, but for me something never quite landed.
I think honestly, it’s one of those personal intangible actor things that someone doesn’t quite click with an interpretation of the character. And while other actors in this company also didn’t fit the mould on first sight, they won me over. While Lane won me over to an extent- and I don’t deny he does have the acting ‘chops’ I wasn’t ever completely won over- and can’t quite put my finger on anything but he just doesn’t feel like Roy.
Part 2 is defiantly Lane’s stronger part- when Cohn’s illness takes hold and it forces his hand out of the familiar dark-comedic role into something more substantial. This is why no doubt he wanted to play the role- and he does show that he has it in him. There are moments of genuine despair and frustration in his character that make you see a glimpse of the man under the monster. Lane also cultivates the relationships with the two characters closest to him well- the sexual tension filled relationship with Joe comes across as complex yet caring- a contradiction to the Roy-the-Monster we feel we should see. Meanwhile the biting animosity driven almost friendship with Belize is fascinating to watch develop.
Lane was a tricky bit of casting for me- and I still can’t tell if it is my own preconceptions that meant it never quite ‘landed’ for me. Or if there is in fact something about the portrayal that just doesn’t work. But that’s the nature of theatre and performance right- can’t win them all. I will say that his final line got me every time- in part due to my own personal associations with the play. But that on the line ‘What you love will take you places you never dreamt you’d go’ got me every time so really, credit where credit’s due- it’s all in the payoff and that worked.
Belize- Nathan Stewart Jarret
I’ve heard this role called the ‘easy’ one and I disagree. Yes, he’s an inherently likeable character, but it would be too easy to render Belize to his one-liners and trusty sidekick role. In Nathan Stewart Jarret’s hands, he is much more. Take as one example the ‘Angels in America’ monologue. A what ten minutes of dialogue that is James McArdle holding court right? wrong, what Stewart-Jarret does is turn a monologue into a conversation. As much as that scene still belongs to McArdle, what Stewart-Jarret is doing makes what McArdle does possible. And there’s a lot to be said for an actor that enables the other in a scene to shine.  But what Stewart-Jarret does isn’t just about giving his partner a platform, he’s giving us just as much about his character with no words as McArdle does in that scene with more words than should be humanly possible.  Similarly, the Angel’s arrival in Perestroika, is quite rightly dominated by well- a huge Angel having sex with Prior- however Belize is no longer a passive observer in this scene- he is active, driving Prior’s storytelling and engaging the audience with it. Stewart-Jarret spends a lot of time in the background to other characters, but he gives the very definition of ‘supporting’ performance when he is- everything he does elevates the whole scene. And in that he’s given plenty of scope to break through himself.
It’s a great achievement to create so much from Belize- I feel I know him far better as a character from this performance than any other (something that can be said for many of the characters/actors in fact). We actually don’t learn a great deal about Belize- deliberately on Kushner’s part- partly because in a way his life is less interesting- the most ‘together’ of the characters he doesn’t have his own drama but is instead pulled into everyone else’s. However that doesn’t mean he’s not interesting because of it- and Stewart-Jarret pulls that out.
It’s easy in fact to overlook Belize in the narrative- amid the turmoil of the central relationships and Roy looming large- however his character is vital. Belize is firstly a nurse on the frontline of the AIDS epidemic, he is seeing first-hand what the others are only hearing about and fearing. He’s also seeing friends and acquaintances- possibly first-hand given there were only a handful of AIDS wards at this time. And he’s watching his best friend Prior go through that now. While the play centres on the impact on Prior and Louis’ relationship, the relationship with Belize- who steps into Louis’ role as Prior’s emotional support- is just as important. And we don’t see a lot of how Belize deals with that. Partly because Kushner writes him as the most ‘together’ of the characters. But we do see chinks in the witty-loudly-dressed-armour from Stewart-Jarret. We see his care for Prior frequently- and the sweetness of their relationship. He also gives us elements of his own fear for his friend, his concern and yes-when it comes to Louis- a fierce protectiveness. A lot of this is unspoken in the text, but is brought out through the minutiae of his performance. From the sweet flirtations of his interactions with Prior when visiting him in the hospital, to the non-verbal replies to Louis during his monologue to the quiet competing for space in the Epilogue and the overall quiet self-assurance with which Belize carries himself. There are layers and layers to unpick in the smallest gesture and it makes Belize into a lynchpin character between the others, as well as hinting just enough at the life he has beyond these interactions.
And yes, he is very funny in the role. But it’s subtly done without resting on stereotypes or easy humour. There’s a genuine wit to his delivery. In sharing the stage with Nathan Lane for much of the play it would be easy to be overshadowed, in fact Nathan Stewart Jarret gets the bigger laughs (not that it’s a competition) in many a scene with his pitch perfect delivery and perfect timing.
But there’s a lot more to Belize than the ‘sidekick’ to Prior or Roy in a scene and this becomes really apparent though this performance. In other productions, I’ve been left feeling Belize is a little ‘outside’ the central group- here that wasn’t the case, there felt like a rich history to the relationships between the characters. Certainly evident in the chemistry between Stewart-Jarrett and Garfield there was a clear sense of a deep long-term friendship between them and a rich history between the characters. The sweetness and affection in their scenes together- particularly Prior’s hospital scenes, are heart wrenching and the tenderness and affection between them feels so genuine- it’s in fact the look of abject fear and sadness on Stewart-Jarret’s face while Prior breaks down that is more heart-breaking than Prior himself. He may be an observer in many scenes but Stewart-Jarret gives such a sensitive observation of what he sees as Belize the audience is pulled in and heart-broken along with him. Previously as well scenes with Louis and Belize can feel forced, as if actors aren’t quite sure of the relationship between them, here there was a clear history- fractious certainly- but a history of a different sort of friendship and ongoing relationship between them. Even in the Epilogue (the subtleties of which deserve its own post) there was a silent rendering of what has perhaps passed since- and although Belize has slightly less to do in that scene there was a real sense of his presence and his place in that narrative.
Russell Tovey- Joe
The trouble with Joe- the Marlboro Man- Pitt is that as a character he doesn’t know who he is, so how on earth does an actor fathom that? In Part 1 particularly Joe is a bit vacuous, and that’s too easy to read as an actor being somewhat bland in the part. Tovey is in fact almost everything you need from a Joe- a fairly blank canvass (and yes, as Louis points out also gorgeous) which makes him frustrating almost static in Part 1. Tovey has a sweet puppy dog eyed nature that makes Joe charming and loveable within it all- particularly in the early scenes when he’s simply lost, rather than doing Harper and himself any wrong. His sweet-eyed innocence is endearing and we believe him as a man dragged from the safety of Salt Lake and bewildered somewhat by the world of New York, and by himself.
Tovey does play an edge to Joe that makes you believe Harper when she says she’s scared of him. He plays a sharp temper to Joe that appears out of nowhere, and an element of supressed violence to his outbursts (which eventually erupts at Louis, making us wonder perhaps had he stayed would Harper have felt that?). Tovey is physically imposing too, there’s no doubting his fondness for the gym which works on a couple of levels for Joe as a character also although unwritten. That on one level Joe is seeking to create that physique which he desires in another in himself- there is much more to unpick about Gay gym culture obviously that has its place elsewhere. That he uses gym time, much like he uses his walks, to look, to partially satisfy an urge. Second that like many he uses time in the gym to release tension, alleviate some of what troubles him- another hiding place for Joe who seems to have so many. The fact then he is gym honed, works on one level for Louis’ powerlessness to his ‘gorgeousness’ but also in a level that Joe would be using the gym for various purposes. (and all that aside, if I had to get naked every other night I’d probably up my gym game…)
The endearing puppy-dog Joe Tovey continues to play in his relationship with Louis acts as a nice foil to McArdle’s slightly bumbling but spikey edged Louis. In another universe, they could almost work as a couple with the soft sweetness of Joe’s wide-eyed wonder balancing out Louis’s cynicism and anger at the world. However, where this works best is when the sweetness meets Joe’s bubbling anger- a sense this is an unruly almost Hulk-like emotion that he’s actually fighting with continually. Seen best in the utter tour de force that is the ‘Have you no decency’ scene we see sweet Joe, coming in to try and win back Louis, tell him he loves him again and hope for a happier ending, then begin to fight with that bubbling anger while Louis unleashes a torrent of his own anger at him. We see Joe finally snap, but even when he does he pulls it back in so quickly it feels like it’s still a barely contained rage. That’s the essence really of Tovey’s Joe, the man who probably is inherently sweet and good fighting so hard with everything inside him it explodes- but even then, he’s so afraid of the loss of control nothing resolves.

Cast and Characters Part 1

Honestly I’ve been using this as a bit of a writing excercie to get myself out of a rut. But some people asked for takes on the actors/their choices with the characters so here are some notes….(more to follow)

Denise Gough- Harper
There is a part of me that believe Denise Gough just sort of arrives fully formed at perfection in her acting roles. And while I know that can’t be true I kind of want it to be true. Her Harper, a bit like McArdle’s Louis is everything I didn’t know she was but needed her to be. Gough’s Harper is tough, and she’s sharp around the edges, which makes her more vulnerable when she needs to be.
Her Harper is a ‘fighty’ one.  It’s easy to play Harper as slightly broken and a bit demure. But a Harper with some bite (and not just in pulling down trees) is even more tragic in the first part, and even more hopeful in the second. If your Harper is going down, being beaten by her addiction, her Husband’s secret life, her past, her lack of child-it’s easy to just play the despair, but Gough plays Harper as someone being swallowed up by that black hole but fighting all the way. Yes she disappears into her dreams, that’s her escape- everyone needs that- but the rest of the time she’s fighting to hold on to her marriage, to herself and to keep whatever other secrets and past from taking hold. It would be easy to just play the woman slipped into passive drug addiction, but never once does everything that’s led to that slip from Gough’s grasp.
There’s also a real self-awareness to her Harper. She knows what her problems are and it’s like we’re watching her watch herself get dragged down into them with eyes wide open. And that’s terrifying, and incredibly sad. She knows she’s losing her grip, and for a long time there’s nothing she can do about it. But when she’s finally able to she lifts the audience along with here. There’s an element of the ‘threshold of revelation’ that is all the weird dreams and escapes also being Harper’s crystal-clear awareness of her situation- but without self-pity. She also plays a genuine love and affection for Joe- again without self-pity- that makes the loneliness of Part 1 feel even more raw, but also makes her escape from him more triumphant.
It’s a little detail but I love that Gough cut her hair into a pixie cut. Not just because I have that haircut and I think more women should rock it (and she does) but because that was a neat little character choice- the short-haired Harper out of step with Fashion, probably had it cut like that in Salt Lake and kept it that way. She’s not girly, not ‘into’ clothes or fashion because she’s presumably never been exposed to much of that. And there’s a certain nod to ‘will Joe prefer it if I have short hair’ (as much as I hate the short-haired-girls-like-boys analogy it’s certainly one at play here). It also plays into a narrative where she takes some ownership of how she looks- for appearances I’m sure Joe would prefer a girly looking wife. Harper’s unkempt ‘tomboy’ look feels like a defiance of the Mormon wife look, and what Joe would like to hide behind.  And that Gough presumably cut it once then let it grow across the run left her with a slightly unruly crop that worked for a woman for whom a cut and blow dry wouldn’t be top of the list.
Gough plays the love and humanity of Harper’s story, rather than the Mormon or drug addiction sides that can eclipse her as a person. Harper is also a centre point of the story- something easily lost with a (dare I say it) lesser actor and director. I’m not usually one for playing this card but I don’t think it’s coincidence that a production directed by a woman puts Harper firmly in the centre of the story. Because she is at the centre- the story comes ‘through’ her as much as Prior- she’s actually Prior’s counterpoint. And instead of losing her to the ‘poor wife’ in the ‘gay story’ we actually see her as equal with Prior- they’re both ill in different ways, both abandoned in different ways (and then ultimately by the same cheating couple) and they’ve both lost their way. The fact also that I felt Harper’s loss of a child/want for a child as a driver more than in any other incarnation, as well as whatever she had gone through at home. There was a real sensitivity to the way Gough delivered (and Elliot directed) that felt a real sensitivity to the way women experience the world.

Roy- Nathan Lane.
Firstly, hands up- I wasn’t excited about the Lane casting. I know a lot of people partly went to see the play because they wanted to see Nathan Lane on stage and that’s perfectly valid- I’ve previously done that. But for me he wasn’t a ‘Roy’. I commend what he did, particularly in Part 2 but personally I still rest on the side of ‘wouldn’t be my choice’.
This for me came into sharp relief on re-watching the HBO version, where Al Pacino as Roy stops being ‘Al Pacino’ after probably the first scene and melts into Roy. For me Lane never quite disappears into his character in the same way. His ‘Nathan Lane’ ness works really well for Roy, the evil end of the Max Bialystock spectrum works perfectly in fact for the jokey-but-evil Roy of Part 1. And the confidence of an actor who knows exactly how to work an audience translates in fact to Roy working his own audience of Joe within the play. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the portrayal, but for me something never quite landed.
I think honestly, it’s one of those personal intangible actor things that someone doesn’t quite click with an interpretation of the character. And while other actors in this company also didn’t fit the mould on first sight, they won me over. While Lane won me over to an extent- and I don’t deny he does have the acting ‘chops’ I wasn’t ever completely won over- and can’t quite put my finger on anything but he just doesn’t feel like Roy.
Part 2 is defiantly Lane’s stronger part- when Cohn’s illness takes hold and it forces his hand out of the familiar dark-comedic role into something more substantial. This is why no doubt he wanted to play the role- and he does show that he has it in him. There are moments of genuine despair and frustration in his character that make you see a glimpse of the man under the monster. Lane also cultivates the relationships with the two characters closest to him well- the sexual tension filled relationship with Joe comes across as complex yet caring- a contradiction to the Roy-the-Monster we feel we should see. Meanwhile the biting animosity driven almost friendship with Belize is fascinating to watch develop.
Lane was a tricky bit of casting for me- and I still can’t tell if it is my own preconceptions that meant it never quite ‘landed’ for me. Or if there is in fact something about the portrayal that just doesn’t work. But that’s the nature of theatre and performance right- can’t win them all. I will say that his final line got me every time- in part due to my own personal associations with the play. But that on the line ‘What you love will take you places you never dreamt you’d go’ got me every time so really, credit where credit’s due- it’s all in the payoff and that worked.
Belize- Nathan Stewart Jarret
I’ve heard this role called the ‘easy’ one and I disagree. Yes, he’s an inherently likeable character, but it would be too easy to render Belize to his one-liners and trusty sidekick role. In Nathan Stewart Jarret’s hands, he is much more. Take as one example the ‘Angels in America’ monologue. A what ten minutes of dialogue that is James McArdle holding court right? wrong, what Stewart-Jarret does is turn a monologue into a conversation. As much as that scene still belongs to McArdle, what Stewart-Jarret is doing makes what McArdle does possible. And there’s a lot to be said for an actor that enables the other in a scene to shine.  But what Stewart-Jarret does isn’t just about giving his partner a platform, he’s giving us just as much about his character with no words as McArdle does in that scene with more words than should be humanly possible.  Similarly, the Angel’s arrival in Perestroika, is quite rightly dominated by well- a huge Angel having sex with Prior- however Belize is no longer a passive observer in this scene- he is active, driving Prior’s storytelling and engaging the audience with it. Stewart-Jarret spends a lot of time in the background to other characters, but he gives the very definition of ‘supporting’ performance when he is- everything he does elevates the whole scene. And in that he’s given plenty of scope to break through himself.
It’s a great achievement to create so much from Belize- I feel I know him far better as a character from this performance than any other (something that can be said for many of the characters/actors in fact). We actually don’t learn a great deal about Belize- deliberately on Kushner’s part- partly because in a way his life is less interesting- the most ‘together’ of the characters he doesn’t have his own drama but is instead pulled into everyone else’s. However that doesn’t mean he’s not interesting because of it- and Stewart-Jarret pulls that out.
It’s easy in fact to overlook Belize in the narrative- amid the turmoil of the central relationships and Roy looming large- however his character is vital. Belize is firstly a nurse on the frontline of the AIDS epidemic, he is seeing first-hand what the others are only hearing about and fearing. He’s also seeing friends and acquaintances- possibly first-hand given there were only a handful of AIDS wards at this time. And he’s watching his best friend Prior go through that now. While the play centres on the impact on Prior and Louis’ relationship, the relationship with Belize- who steps into Louis’ role as Prior’s emotional support- is just as important. And we don’t see a lot of how Belize deals with that. Partly because Kushner writes him as the most ‘together’ of the characters. But we do see chinks in the witty-loudly-dressed-armour from Stewart-Jarret. We see his care for Prior frequently- and the sweetness of their relationship. He also gives us elements of his own fear for his friend, his concern and yes-when it comes to Louis- a fierce protectiveness. A lot of this is unspoken in the text, but is brought out through the minutiae of his performance. From the sweet flirtations of his interactions with Prior when visiting him in the hospital, to the non-verbal replies to Louis during his monologue to the quiet competing for space in the Epilogue and the overall quiet self-assurance with which Belize carries himself. There are layers and layers to unpick in the smallest gesture and it makes Belize into a lynchpin character between the others, as well as hinting just enough at the life he has beyond these interactions.
And yes, he is very funny in the role. But it’s subtly done without resting on stereotypes or easy humour. There’s a genuine wit to his delivery. In sharing the stage with Nathan Lane for much of the play it would be easy to be overshadowed, in fact Nathan Stewart Jarret gets the bigger laughs (not that it’s a competition) in many a scene with his pitch perfect delivery and perfect timing.
But there’s a lot more to Belize than the ‘sidekick’ to Prior or Roy in a scene and this becomes really apparent though this performance. In other productions, I’ve been left feeling Belize is a little ‘outside’ the central group- here that wasn’t the case, there felt like a rich history to the relationships between the characters. Certainly evident in the chemistry between Stewart-Jarrett and Garfield there was a clear sense of a deep long-term friendship between them and a rich history between the characters. The sweetness and affection in their scenes together- particularly Prior’s hospital scenes, are heart wrenching and the tenderness and affection between them feels so genuine- it’s in fact the look of abject fear and sadness on Stewart-Jarret’s face while Prior breaks down that is more heart-breaking than Prior himself. He may be an observer in many scenes but Stewart-Jarret gives such a sensitive observation of what he sees as Belize the audience is pulled in and heart-broken along with him. Previously as well scenes with Louis and Belize can feel forced, as if actors aren’t quite sure of the relationship between them, here there was a clear history- fractious certainly- but a history of a different sort of friendship and ongoing relationship between them. Even in the Epilogue (the subtleties of which deserve its own post) there was a silent rendering of what has perhaps passed since- and although Belize has slightly less to do in that scene there was a real sense of his presence and his place in that narrative.
Russell Tovey- Joe
The trouble with Joe- the Marlboro Man- Pitt is that as a character he doesn’t know who he is, so how on earth does an actor fathom that? In Part 1 particularly Joe is a bit vacuous, and that’s too easy to read as an actor being somewhat bland in the part. Tovey is in fact almost everything you need from a Joe- a fairly blank canvass (and yes, as Louis points out also gorgeous) which makes him frustrating almost static in Part 1. Tovey has a sweet puppy dog eyed nature that makes Joe charming and loveable within it all- particularly in the early scenes when he’s simply lost, rather than doing Harper and himself any wrong. His sweet-eyed innocence is endearing and we believe him as a man dragged from the safety of Salt Lake and bewildered somewhat by the world of New York, and by himself.
Tovey does play an edge to Joe that makes you believe Harper when she says she’s scared of him. He plays a sharp temper to Joe that appears out of nowhere, and an element of supressed violence to his outbursts (which eventually erupts at Louis, making us wonder perhaps had he stayed would Harper have felt that?). Tovey is physically imposing too, there’s no doubting his fondness for the gym which works on a couple of levels for Joe as a character also although unwritten. That on one level Joe is seeking to create that physique which he desires in another in himself- there is much more to unpick about Gay gym culture obviously that has its place elsewhere. That he uses gym time, much like he uses his walks, to look, to partially satisfy an urge. Second that like many he uses time in the gym to release tension, alleviate some of what troubles him- another hiding place for Joe who seems to have so many. The fact then he is gym honed, works on one level for Louis’ powerlessness to his ‘gorgeousness’ but also in a level that Joe would be using the gym for various purposes. (and all that aside, if I had to get naked every other night I’d probably up my gym game…)
The endearing puppy-dog Joe Tovey continues to play in his relationship with Louis acts as a nice foil to McArdle’s slightly bumbling but spikey edged Louis. In another universe, they could almost work as a couple with the soft sweetness of Joe’s wide-eyed wonder balancing out Louis’s cynicism and anger at the world. However, where this works best is when the sweetness meets Joe’s bubbling anger- a sense this is an unruly almost Hulk-like emotion that he’s actually fighting with continually. Seen best in the utter tour de force that is the ‘Have you no decency’ scene we see sweet Joe, coming in to try and win back Louis, tell him he loves him again and hope for a happier ending, then begin to fight with that bubbling anger while Louis unleashes a torrent of his own anger at him. We see Joe finally snap, but even when he does he pulls it back in so quickly it feels like it’s still a barely contained rage. That’s the essence really of Tovey’s Joe, the man who probably is inherently sweet and good fighting so hard with everything inside him it explodes- but even then, he’s so afraid of the loss of control nothing resolves.

Under the Skin of Angels in America (Part 3)

The final talk, given after hearing a talk from Jonathan Bell on the history of healtcare in the USA, and extracts performed by actors, was a concluding talk that discussed both the ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ and the approach to the AIDS epidemic the plays take. 




Gay life

Despite being a broader story than simply a ‘gay play’ Angels obviously places Gay life and experience at the centre of it’s narrative. The backdrop for the play had been that of sexual liberation of the 1970s, following The Stonewall Riots in 1969 had kick-started the Gay Rights Movement. 



When on 28thJune 1969, the night Judy Garland died, a group of Gay customers- led by Drag Queens- grew frustrated at Police harassment and fought back, they sparked a riot, which sparked copy-cat standing up and standing off with the authorities. A year later the first Gay Pride March in New York took place on the anniversary. Forming into cohesive, agenda driven community and activism groups there was a sense of politicising and motivation in the Gay community that would become galvanised in the 1980s.  The spirit of sexual liberation from the late 1960s and into the 1970s, combined with this new, unapologetic attitude meant a sexual liberation for Gay men, particularly in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Known as the period of ‘Gay Liberation’ sexual permissiveness was for some, as well as a time of simply being more open, and visible. Within just over a decade the AIDS crisis would sweep in both decimating these communities and make the liberated and permissive days for many a distant memory but also radically redirecting the focus of community activism. For the community the moment of freedom, both sexual and social was to feel short lived, by the mid-1980s, when Angels begins, there was both the ever-present fear of the consequences of sexual freedom, and the resurgence in discrimination that AIDS brought.

The issues of gay identity, and the impact of AIDS do drive the piece, with Joe Pitt struggling to accept his sexuality, supressed under both religion and an upbringing and society that wouldn’t tolerate it.  Roy Cohn, all-powerful in politics, is powerless to admit his own sexuality in a world where ‘clout’ is more important than truth, ultimately to his detriment as he goes to his grave denying himself. The play addresses being in the closet from two very different angles- in Cohn’s case, a man all-powerful in many respects, afraid of the implications his sexuality would have, but also a man who has done little to suppress his own desires across his life. But who wields sexuality as yet another weapon of power. 


Meanwhile Joe Pitt, fighting with all he must be the ‘good man’ his strict upbringing and religious upbringing have given him. Cohn despite his power, is at his most powerless at the mercy of the hand his sexuality has dealt him- and powerless admit it. Meanwhile Joe becomes empowered with his admission of his sexuality- brought to life in an incredibly awkward but realistic conversation to his Mother in which he declares ‘I’m a homosexual Mama’ and she dismiss him with ‘You’re old enough to understand your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it’. The story goes the overall feel if not the exact words were drawn from Kushner’s own coming out. Joe ends up freed from his marriage to Harper- or she from her marriage to him- but he remains lost in his new-found identity. And interestingly at the close of the play, his story is both unresolved, and the most tragic in its own way (as would Roy’s be if we weren’t so compelled ot hate him for who he is). A clear message on sexuality, and being honest with yourself and others.


Elsewhere Louis, Prior and Belize are utterly unapologetic about their sexuality. Admittedly living in their New York bubble but they seem barely affected by elements of sexuality. Louis comments sarcastically about his parent’s disappointment at his sexuality, and appears semi-closeted at family events (though he takes Prior with him) but seems largely unthreatened. Prior also seems to have little qualms, except to shout at his Angelic visitor ‘I am a gay man I am used to pressure’. Jason Isaacs recalls the “invaluable” lessons that Kushner taught him about playing the character of Louis when he shadowed him for a few days in New York. One was to ignore anyone in rehearsals that found being effeminate offensive or unattractive, all of which he says happened. “Louis and Prior were in your face screaming queens and it was everybody else’s problem to deal with it,” The play is clearly unapologetic in its stance.



AIDS

And what of the issue of AIDS? The idea that AIDS is now an issue that is ‘over’ is a dangerously prevalent one. And while it is now a treatable condition it is still a lifelong, if treated, and remains life threatening if not. Infection rates rise again, and while we understand the virus more fully, a cure is still elusive. Alongside this, not everything in the play needs to be current, and while the politics and the characters resonate, it is also enough that this play acts as a memorial, to a time, and to the many lost to AIDS. Kushner was writing as a response to the decimation of a community, his community, and in revisiting that time through the stories he tells, we can do so as an act of memorial and as a theatrical lesson to those now too young to remember the fear of ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital, if I go I won’t come back’ as Prior himself says. And a Prior declares at the close ‘We won’t die silent deaths anymore’ the play now feels like a call to make that true, by continuing to tell these stories.

It is part of a rich history of playwrights, from America and across the globe, in using theatrical performance as a platform for raising awareness of AIDS. From smaller community, based endeavours by organisations such as San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, or London’s Gay Sweatshop in the early 1980s, through to the first plays to address AIDS on a wider scale, such as William Hoffman’s As Is in 1985 or Larry Kramer’s critically successful and politically confrontational The Normal Heart (1985). Although other plays to tackle AIDS came after Angels in America including the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Rent by Jonathan Larson, or the uniquely British approach offered by Kevin Elyot in My Night With Reg, it is Angels in America that has become the seminal theatrical work on AIDS. Also, winning Kushner the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1993) alongside numerous other theatrical accolades Kushner’s play became the next, and most critically successful of the plays which tackled AIDS.


The AIDS crisis in the way Kushner tackles it was in some ways a departure from other playwrights of the era. Crucially Kushner’s characters are not activists like Larry Kramer’s Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart (1985), and though politics looms large, and any writing about AIDS is inherently political, it is not a political manifesto on AIDS. The responsibility for activism is passed to the audience, to be moved to action by the play, rather than instructed to it. Neither does Kushner take the more domestic, romantic notions of caring for your lover through the epidemic that the first AIDS play, William Hoffman’s As Is took.


It is no coincidence then that 1985, the year the play begins, was also the year Rock Hudson died, forcing Reagan’s hand in finally mentioning the word ‘AIDS’ in a speech, but four years and over 5000 deaths into the epidemic life for the Gay Community was being irreversibly changed. Kushner began writing the play in 1986, and it became clear that the AIDS crisis was an unavoidable topic for a playwright seeking to capture the moment of American history. 

Kushner is writing at a point where AIDS had taken hold, with over 5000 deaths in America, but with no real response from the Government. Rock Hudson’s death forcing Reagan’s hand in finally acknowledging the crisis by name in 1985, but treatment, awareness and crucial research into the condition was all severely lacking.  The first Bill on AIDS research was only passed through congress in 1984, and the $12 million targeted for AIDS research a relatively small amount.  Life in the Gay community was being affected, in 1984 San Francisco ordered the closure of bathhouses, and New York would follow suit in 1985. Not only socially, sexually, but in everyday life people’s lives were being devastated- in a time of fear Gay men, and others with AIDS, found themselves losing jobs, homes and discriminated against. It is then at a significant moment of history in the AIDS epidemic that Kushner situates his play. 


It is more than the context of AIDS which fuels the play. Both Roy and Prior are depicted succumbing to aspects of their illness. In a literal fleshing out of AIDS to the audience, from subtle reminders of illness to full blown medical descriptions, Kushner keeps AIDS ever present in the minds of his characters and audiences. 


Kushner uses the physical and medical descriptions of AIDS to confront his audience, he starts early in the play with Prior revealing his diagnosis to Louis through the lesion he has found on his arm saying; ‘KS baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine dark kiss of the Angel of death.’ This begins an unfolding of medical cataloguing and confrontation with the audience. From detailed medical descriptions with Prior and Roy’s Doctors that show both the uncertainty and the multitude of medical issues an AIDS diagnosis held in 1985. Kushner- and Elliot in her staging- also don’t shy away from depictions of AIDS. In the original New York production actor Stephen Spinella who played Prior was forced to given an interview in which he confirmed he did not in fact have AIDS so realistic was his performance. While neither Lane or Garfield will likely be confronted with such tabloid rumours this time around, the play contains and is directed with a realism that is difficult to watch as both characters succumb to their illness. Seen convulsing with pain, collapsing, and bleeding on stage it’s a raw and honest approach to the illness- nobody quietly slips away into an attractive death, when Belize says of Roy ‘He died a hard death’ the audience has seen it, lived it with him and cannot argue that point no matter what they think of Roy.  A particularly striking moment as well is when Roy pulls a drip from his arm covering the stage, and the other actors in his blood. There really couldn’t be a more confrontational metaphor for bringing the audience into the narrative of living with AIDS in 1985.



It is however in the boldest choices of the stories he tells around AIDS that really put the power in Angels- and was the motivator behind creating drama about AIDS. To put a human face to the epidemic that was until now seen through the eyes of government information films with tombstones, and ultimately faceless statistics. Kushner’s true skill however is that he resists the temptation to present this in an idealised manner. Kushner has a different agenda to those previously who simply sought to draw attention to the catastrophe of AIDS. Instead Kushner has the luxury of interrogating the response, he says of the play ‘The question I am trying to ask is how broad a community’s reach is? How wide does it reach?’ but rather than offering an idealized sugar coated version, Kushner challenges his audience. On one hand he presents Louis, the seemingly kind, idealistic Gay man in a long-term relationship, who cannot cope. Who leaves. On the other Roy Cohn, antithesis of anything this idea of ‘community’ might stand for, and how deserving he is of the same sympathies we automatically extend to Prior.



As Prior says to Louis, ‘There are thousands of gay men in New York City and nearly every one of them is being taken care of.’ What Louis does is at once unconscionable, but also understandable. On paper it’s a horrific move, and the automatic reaction is to condemn him, but at the same time he makes us consider ‘Would I do the same?’ or more importantly ‘Could I do the opposite?’ Louis’ actions are 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. James McArdle says of this; “What I love about it that is I’ve seen plays about Aids in the past and everyone’s noble but Louis is a real human. He’s terrified of it, of the blood and shit and vomit. Above all, he’s scared of watching Prior die. I’ve seen people close to me die and you want to run. It’s fight or flight.” (Evening Standard 2017)  Kushner’s comment on this was  that he was sick of seeing AIDS dramas in which ‘people magically went from being disco bunnies to Florence Nightingale’



Roy of course poses a different question. Cohn, who was previously described by Louis as ‘The most evil vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54’ and ‘The Polestar of human evil’ is presented-rightly so- as the epitome of evil in the play. He rejects his identity as a Gay man, is willing to cheat the system to get medication for himself, is racist and homophobic to his nurse Belize. And all this discounting everything else he did in life before this point. And yet, Belize his nurse, cares for him as he would anyone else. And while professional responsibility compels him, there is an element of some deeper-rooted sense of community responsibility from Belize. Early on in his care, when Roy asks why he should trust him over his ‘Very expensive White Doctor’ Belize replies Belize mentions ‘He’s [Roy’s doctor] not Queer, I am’. When Roy dies and Belize asks Louis to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The idea is repugnant to Louis, vehemently refusing ‘no fucking way I’m praying for him’, citing his parents’ reaction if they found out:

 My New Deal pinko parents in Schenectady would never forgive me, they’re already so disappointed; he’s a fag. He’s an office temp. And now look his’ saying Kaddish for Roy Cohn.’

Louis’s somewhat glib response belies Kushner’s discomfort with offering too much in the way of absolution for Cohn. However, Belize’s response to Louis’s disgust simply and effectively puts the case for the treatment of Cohn: he replies, ‘Louis, I’d even pray for you’. By setting apart Cohn’s actions in life in favour of the difficult death he just had, Belize argues strongly for an equal treatment. Belize then turns the argument back on himself and Louis by declaring that:  ‘It doesn’t count if it’s easy. It’s the hardest thing forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet.’ By showing the forgiveness, or at least the attempts to forgive
Louis’s question ‘[w]hat if I walked out on this?’ is also directed at the audience. The uniting of the physical and personal allows Kushner’s text to transcend the nationality of the play and the demographic groups represented.  Kushner hopes that ‘you take the world you see into the real world if it moved you.’In balancing the emotional involvement with his characters alongside the medical depictions, both literal and metaphoric work together in Kushner’s depiction of AIDS.




Conclusion Angels then and now


Kushner began writing the play in 1986, when it was clear that the AIDS crisis was an unavoidable topic for a playwright seeking to capture the moment of American history.  Kushner is part of a rich history of playwrights, from America and across the globe, in using theatrical performance as a platform for raising awareness of AIDS. Kushner’s drama also sweeps far and wide on the politics, history and philosophy of America. Most significantly, it turns this history and philosophy to the audience, and when Prior states ‘The Great Work begins’ it is as much an invocation to action, as a conclusion to the play.

And it is the writing that holds the power in the final scenes. Prior stands up to the Angels and commands them to ‘Bless me anyway’ and then turns this on the audience telling them ‘And I bless you. 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.

One final piece that resonates differently today, is Prior’s description of men like him with AIDS ‘We won’t die secret deaths anymore’ he says. And the play now does act as a memorial to the men like Prior victims of inadequate healthcare, research and of prejudice. And Angels is America is an important reminder of that time, and as a reminder to keep moving forward. And so ‘More Life’ becomes a call to action for the audience, but to a kind of their own choosing.  Next to that action there’s also a very contemporary feeling idea about choosing your family, with the assembled group of somewhat misfits at the end of the play, coming together as a community, even family. So actually Kushner’s question of community is answered without reverting to the sentimental. McArdle: “I do not believe blood is thicker than water at all. At all. There are some friends I have who I would walk the Earth for sooner than I would some blood members of my family.”


Under the Skin of Angels in America (Part 3)

The final talk, given after hearing a talk from Jonathan Bell on the history of healtcare in the USA, and extracts performed by actors, was a concluding talk that discussed both the ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ and the approach to the AIDS epidemic the plays take. 




Gay life

Despite being a broader story than simply a ‘gay play’ Angels obviously places Gay life and experience at the centre of it’s narrative. The backdrop for the play had been that of sexual liberation of the 1970s, following The Stonewall Riots in 1969 had kick-started the Gay Rights Movement. 



When on 28thJune 1969, the night Judy Garland died, a group of Gay customers- led by Drag Queens- grew frustrated at Police harassment and fought back, they sparked a riot, which sparked copy-cat standing up and standing off with the authorities. A year later the first Gay Pride March in New York took place on the anniversary. Forming into cohesive, agenda driven community and activism groups there was a sense of politicising and motivation in the Gay community that would become galvanised in the 1980s.  The spirit of sexual liberation from the late 1960s and into the 1970s, combined with this new, unapologetic attitude meant a sexual liberation for Gay men, particularly in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Known as the period of ‘Gay Liberation’ sexual permissiveness was for some, as well as a time of simply being more open, and visible. Within just over a decade the AIDS crisis would sweep in both decimating these communities and make the liberated and permissive days for many a distant memory but also radically redirecting the focus of community activism. For the community the moment of freedom, both sexual and social was to feel short lived, by the mid-1980s, when Angels begins, there was both the ever-present fear of the consequences of sexual freedom, and the resurgence in discrimination that AIDS brought.

The issues of gay identity, and the impact of AIDS do drive the piece, with Joe Pitt struggling to accept his sexuality, supressed under both religion and an upbringing and society that wouldn’t tolerate it.  Roy Cohn, all-powerful in politics, is powerless to admit his own sexuality in a world where ‘clout’ is more important than truth, ultimately to his detriment as he goes to his grave denying himself. The play addresses being in the closet from two very different angles- in Cohn’s case, a man all-powerful in many respects, afraid of the implications his sexuality would have, but also a man who has done little to suppress his own desires across his life. But who wields sexuality as yet another weapon of power. 


Meanwhile Joe Pitt, fighting with all he must be the ‘good man’ his strict upbringing and religious upbringing have given him. Cohn despite his power, is at his most powerless at the mercy of the hand his sexuality has dealt him- and powerless admit it. Meanwhile Joe becomes empowered with his admission of his sexuality- brought to life in an incredibly awkward but realistic conversation to his Mother in which he declares ‘I’m a homosexual Mama’ and she dismiss him with ‘You’re old enough to understand your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it’. The story goes the overall feel if not the exact words were drawn from Kushner’s own coming out. Joe ends up freed from his marriage to Harper- or she from her marriage to him- but he remains lost in his new-found identity. And interestingly at the close of the play, his story is both unresolved, and the most tragic in its own way (as would Roy’s be if we weren’t so compelled ot hate him for who he is). A clear message on sexuality, and being honest with yourself and others.


Elsewhere Louis, Prior and Belize are utterly unapologetic about their sexuality. Admittedly living in their New York bubble but they seem barely affected by elements of sexuality. Louis comments sarcastically about his parent’s disappointment at his sexuality, and appears semi-closeted at family events (though he takes Prior with him) but seems largely unthreatened. Prior also seems to have little qualms, except to shout at his Angelic visitor ‘I am a gay man I am used to pressure’. Jason Isaacs recalls the “invaluable” lessons that Kushner taught him about playing the character of Louis when he shadowed him for a few days in New York. One was to ignore anyone in rehearsals that found being effeminate offensive or unattractive, all of which he says happened. “Louis and Prior were in your face screaming queens and it was everybody else’s problem to deal with it,” The play is clearly unapologetic in its stance.



AIDS

And what of the issue of AIDS? The idea that AIDS is now an issue that is ‘over’ is a dangerously prevalent one. And while it is now a treatable condition it is still a lifelong, if treated, and remains life threatening if not. Infection rates rise again, and while we understand the virus more fully, a cure is still elusive. Alongside this, not everything in the play needs to be current, and while the politics and the characters resonate, it is also enough that this play acts as a memorial, to a time, and to the many lost to AIDS. Kushner was writing as a response to the decimation of a community, his community, and in revisiting that time through the stories he tells, we can do so as an act of memorial and as a theatrical lesson to those now too young to remember the fear of ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital, if I go I won’t come back’ as Prior himself says. And a Prior declares at the close ‘We won’t die silent deaths anymore’ the play now feels like a call to make that true, by continuing to tell these stories.

It is part of a rich history of playwrights, from America and across the globe, in using theatrical performance as a platform for raising awareness of AIDS. From smaller community, based endeavours by organisations such as San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, or London’s Gay Sweatshop in the early 1980s, through to the first plays to address AIDS on a wider scale, such as William Hoffman’s As Is in 1985 or Larry Kramer’s critically successful and politically confrontational The Normal Heart (1985). Although other plays to tackle AIDS came after Angels in America including the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Rent by Jonathan Larson, or the uniquely British approach offered by Kevin Elyot in My Night With Reg, it is Angels in America that has become the seminal theatrical work on AIDS. Also, winning Kushner the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1993) alongside numerous other theatrical accolades Kushner’s play became the next, and most critically successful of the plays which tackled AIDS.


The AIDS crisis in the way Kushner tackles it was in some ways a departure from other playwrights of the era. Crucially Kushner’s characters are not activists like Larry Kramer’s Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart (1985), and though politics looms large, and any writing about AIDS is inherently political, it is not a political manifesto on AIDS. The responsibility for activism is passed to the audience, to be moved to action by the play, rather than instructed to it. Neither does Kushner take the more domestic, romantic notions of caring for your lover through the epidemic that the first AIDS play, William Hoffman’s As Is took.


It is no coincidence then that 1985, the year the play begins, was also the year Rock Hudson died, forcing Reagan’s hand in finally mentioning the word ‘AIDS’ in a speech, but four years and over 5000 deaths into the epidemic life for the Gay Community was being irreversibly changed. Kushner began writing the play in 1986, and it became clear that the AIDS crisis was an unavoidable topic for a playwright seeking to capture the moment of American history. 

Kushner is writing at a point where AIDS had taken hold, with over 5000 deaths in America, but with no real response from the Government. Rock Hudson’s death forcing Reagan’s hand in finally acknowledging the crisis by name in 1985, but treatment, awareness and crucial research into the condition was all severely lacking.  The first Bill on AIDS research was only passed through congress in 1984, and the $12 million targeted for AIDS research a relatively small amount.  Life in the Gay community was being affected, in 1984 San Francisco ordered the closure of bathhouses, and New York would follow suit in 1985. Not only socially, sexually, but in everyday life people’s lives were being devastated- in a time of fear Gay men, and others with AIDS, found themselves losing jobs, homes and discriminated against. It is then at a significant moment of history in the AIDS epidemic that Kushner situates his play. 


It is more than the context of AIDS which fuels the play. Both Roy and Prior are depicted succumbing to aspects of their illness. In a literal fleshing out of AIDS to the audience, from subtle reminders of illness to full blown medical descriptions, Kushner keeps AIDS ever present in the minds of his characters and audiences. 


Kushner uses the physical and medical descriptions of AIDS to confront his audience, he starts early in the play with Prior revealing his diagnosis to Louis through the lesion he has found on his arm saying; ‘KS baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine dark kiss of the Angel of death.’ This begins an unfolding of medical cataloguing and confrontation with the audience. From detailed medical descriptions with Prior and Roy’s Doctors that show both the uncertainty and the multitude of medical issues an AIDS diagnosis held in 1985. Kushner- and Elliot in her staging- also don’t shy away from depictions of AIDS. In the original New York production actor Stephen Spinella who played Prior was forced to given an interview in which he confirmed he did not in fact have AIDS so realistic was his performance. While neither Lane or Garfield will likely be confronted with such tabloid rumours this time around, the play contains and is directed with a realism that is difficult to watch as both characters succumb to their illness. Seen convulsing with pain, collapsing, and bleeding on stage it’s a raw and honest approach to the illness- nobody quietly slips away into an attractive death, when Belize says of Roy ‘He died a hard death’ the audience has seen it, lived it with him and cannot argue that point no matter what they think of Roy.  A particularly striking moment as well is when Roy pulls a drip from his arm covering the stage, and the other actors in his blood. There really couldn’t be a more confrontational metaphor for bringing the audience into the narrative of living with AIDS in 1985.



It is however in the boldest choices of the stories he tells around AIDS that really put the power in Angels- and was the motivator behind creating drama about AIDS. To put a human face to the epidemic that was until now seen through the eyes of government information films with tombstones, and ultimately faceless statistics. Kushner’s true skill however is that he resists the temptation to present this in an idealised manner. Kushner has a different agenda to those previously who simply sought to draw attention to the catastrophe of AIDS. Instead Kushner has the luxury of interrogating the response, he says of the play ‘The question I am trying to ask is how broad a community’s reach is? How wide does it reach?’ but rather than offering an idealized sugar coated version, Kushner challenges his audience. On one hand he presents Louis, the seemingly kind, idealistic Gay man in a long-term relationship, who cannot cope. Who leaves. On the other Roy Cohn, antithesis of anything this idea of ‘community’ might stand for, and how deserving he is of the same sympathies we automatically extend to Prior.



As Prior says to Louis, ‘There are thousands of gay men in New York City and nearly every one of them is being taken care of.’ What Louis does is at once unconscionable, but also understandable. On paper it’s a horrific move, and the automatic reaction is to condemn him, but at the same time he makes us consider ‘Would I do the same?’ or more importantly ‘Could I do the opposite?’ Louis’ actions are 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. James McArdle says of this; “What I love about it that is I’ve seen plays about Aids in the past and everyone’s noble but Louis is a real human. He’s terrified of it, of the blood and shit and vomit. Above all, he’s scared of watching Prior die. I’ve seen people close to me die and you want to run. It’s fight or flight.” (Evening Standard 2017)  Kushner’s comment on this was  that he was sick of seeing AIDS dramas in which ‘people magically went from being disco bunnies to Florence Nightingale’



Roy of course poses a different question. Cohn, who was previously described by Louis as ‘The most evil vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54’ and ‘The Polestar of human evil’ is presented-rightly so- as the epitome of evil in the play. He rejects his identity as a Gay man, is willing to cheat the system to get medication for himself, is racist and homophobic to his nurse Belize. And all this discounting everything else he did in life before this point. And yet, Belize his nurse, cares for him as he would anyone else. And while professional responsibility compels him, there is an element of some deeper-rooted sense of community responsibility from Belize. Early on in his care, when Roy asks why he should trust him over his ‘Very expensive White Doctor’ Belize replies Belize mentions ‘He’s [Roy’s doctor] not Queer, I am’. When Roy dies and Belize asks Louis to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The idea is repugnant to Louis, vehemently refusing ‘no fucking way I’m praying for him’, citing his parents’ reaction if they found out:

 My New Deal pinko parents in Schenectady would never forgive me, they’re already so disappointed; he’s a fag. He’s an office temp. And now look his’ saying Kaddish for Roy Cohn.’

Louis’s somewhat glib response belies Kushner’s discomfort with offering too much in the way of absolution for Cohn. However, Belize’s response to Louis’s disgust simply and effectively puts the case for the treatment of Cohn: he replies, ‘Louis, I’d even pray for you’. By setting apart Cohn’s actions in life in favour of the difficult death he just had, Belize argues strongly for an equal treatment. Belize then turns the argument back on himself and Louis by declaring that:  ‘It doesn’t count if it’s easy. It’s the hardest thing forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet.’ By showing the forgiveness, or at least the attempts to forgive
Louis’s question ‘[w]hat if I walked out on this?’ is also directed at the audience. The uniting of the physical and personal allows Kushner’s text to transcend the nationality of the play and the demographic groups represented.  Kushner hopes that ‘you take the world you see into the real world if it moved you.’In balancing the emotional involvement with his characters alongside the medical depictions, both literal and metaphoric work together in Kushner’s depiction of AIDS.




Conclusion Angels then and now


Kushner began writing the play in 1986, when it was clear that the AIDS crisis was an unavoidable topic for a playwright seeking to capture the moment of American history.  Kushner is part of a rich history of playwrights, from America and across the globe, in using theatrical performance as a platform for raising awareness of AIDS. Kushner’s drama also sweeps far and wide on the politics, history and philosophy of America. Most significantly, it turns this history and philosophy to the audience, and when Prior states ‘The Great Work begins’ it is as much an invocation to action, as a conclusion to the play.

And it is the writing that holds the power in the final scenes. Prior stands up to the Angels and commands them to ‘Bless me anyway’ and then turns this on the audience telling them ‘And I bless you. 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.

One final piece that resonates differently today, is Prior’s description of men like him with AIDS ‘We won’t die secret deaths anymore’ he says. And the play now does act as a memorial to the men like Prior victims of inadequate healthcare, research and of prejudice. And Angels is America is an important reminder of that time, and as a reminder to keep moving forward. And so ‘More Life’ becomes a call to action for the audience, but to a kind of their own choosing.  Next to that action there’s also a very contemporary feeling idea about choosing your family, with the assembled group of somewhat misfits at the end of the play, coming together as a community, even family. So actually Kushner’s question of community is answered without reverting to the sentimental. McArdle: “I do not believe blood is thicker than water at all. At all. There are some friends I have who I would walk the Earth for sooner than I would some blood members of my family.”