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.