Let’s Fly these Angels to Broadway…

So it’s official that the Angels are flying back to America.

Admittedly it was a fairly well known ‘secret’ and admittedly I knew some weeks ago. On one hand that’s what made it easier for me to say ‘I’m fine really’ once Angels closed- knowing it wasn’t a real ‘goodbye’ just ‘farewell’.

Why then am I so emotional about this today?

Well firstly, in all honesty it’s been a hard week. It’s the first week I’ve been both jobless and Angels-less. And it all finally caught up with me.

So what does it mean really to fly home to Broadway? well for me the NT revival was always the big one. That was ‘home’ for ‘my’ Angels. I’ve always been pretty nerdy about the fact the technical world premiere of the whole thing was there.

But now, for a British director and (largely) British cast to take that most American of plays back home. That takes some chutzpah- in a really good way. Because America has done productions, in fact it’s almost continually doing them. We do them about every 10 years. And this was the big one- this was the Anniversary one that nearly wasn’t at the NT (it was nearly at the Old Vic fact fans, until Mr Spacey had a change of heart, and thank God he did- just to have it back ‘home’). It was lifting it out of the Cottesloe and throwing it on the biggest stage the NT has, and one of the most difficult stages in London. It was throwing a few actors that had a lot of people scratching their heads about both individually and as a group and going ‘look what they can do’. It was directed by a woman- something we don’t seem to make much fuss about but really really should. Because as a woman who has worked on this play for a long time too, you get a lot of funny looks and a lot of Men telling you that it’s not your place.

Maybe it wasn’t perfect, not for everyone, but it was everything and anniversary production (official or otherwise) should be- it was breaking the mould and rebuilding. And it was big and bold and beautiful, and all the theatrical magic that Kushner wrote in.

And I’m proud you know? I’m proud of that collection of actors, designers, Stage management and everyone else at the NT who brought this beast back to life. Because while it’s just another play, it’s not just another play. It’s one of those rare and special plays, that deserves a rare and special production. So I say take it out there with pride not to show America ‘how it’s done’ just to show them what you can do.

And there’s a wonderful cyclical nature to it all. That the NT was so intrinsic in giving the original production life, that it should be a part of giving it ‘More Life’ on Broadway.

And for me? well as I said previously, in my long ramble about what all this means to me (here) this will always be “my” production. The one that left it’s mark on my heart. I loved this play with all of my head before this, but this production made it a part of me again. I fell in love with theatre as a Broadway fan girl, I grew up dreaming of The Great White way and the romance and magic of those theatres. It started friendships and a life long pastime with my Mum. Only yesterday Mum said to me ‘I don’t care how we do it but we’ll make it there (to NY) for Angels’. And that’s really the marker of all this- theatre, going to New York, and the PhD have been a family affair for so long, and Angels being tied up in so much New York mythology for me- for us- has been part of that. All of which me to a PhD, which led me to all this.

I’d be so happy for any production in New York, but to ‘fly’ it ‘home’ with this production so dear to my heart and that made such an impact, that’s something important.  So in just under a year’s time, when it really is ‘Goodbye’ on Broadway, that feels like a right ending for me.

Let’s Fly these Angels to Broadway…

So it’s official that the Angels are flying back to America.

Admittedly it was a fairly well known ‘secret’ and admittedly I knew some weeks ago. On one hand that’s what made it easier for me to say ‘I’m fine really’ once Angels closed- knowing it wasn’t a real ‘goodbye’ just ‘farewell’.

Why then am I so emotional about this today?

Well firstly, in all honesty it’s been a hard week. It’s the first week I’ve been both jobless and Angels-less. And it all finally caught up with me.

So what does it mean really to fly home to Broadway? well for me the NT revival was always the big one. That was ‘home’ for ‘my’ Angels. I’ve always been pretty nerdy about the fact the technical world premiere of the whole thing was there.

But now, for a British director and (largely) British cast to take that most American of plays back home. That takes some chutzpah- in a really good way. Because America has done productions, in fact it’s almost continually doing them. We do them about every 10 years. And this was the big one- this was the Anniversary one that nearly wasn’t at the NT (it was nearly at the Old Vic fact fans, until Mr Spacey had a change of heart, and thank God he did- just to have it back ‘home’). It was lifting it out of the Cottesloe and throwing it on the biggest stage the NT has, and one of the most difficult stages in London. It was throwing a few actors that had a lot of people scratching their heads about both individually and as a group and going ‘look what they can do’. It was directed by a woman- something we don’t seem to make much fuss about but really really should. Because as a woman who has worked on this play for a long time too, you get a lot of funny looks and a lot of Men telling you that it’s not your place.

Maybe it wasn’t perfect, not for everyone, but it was everything and anniversary production (official or otherwise) should be- it was breaking the mould and rebuilding. And it was big and bold and beautiful, and all the theatrical magic that Kushner wrote in.

And I’m proud you know? I’m proud of that collection of actors, designers, Stage management and everyone else at the NT who brought this beast back to life. Because while it’s just another play, it’s not just another play. It’s one of those rare and special plays, that deserves a rare and special production. So I say take it out there with pride not to show America ‘how it’s done’ just to show them what you can do.

And there’s a wonderful cyclical nature to it all. That the NT was so intrinsic in giving the original production life, that it should be a part of giving it ‘More Life’ on Broadway.

And for me? well as I said previously, in my long ramble about what all this means to me (here) this will always be “my” production. The one that left it’s mark on my heart. I loved this play with all of my head before this, but this production made it a part of me again. I fell in love with theatre as a Broadway fan girl, I grew up dreaming of The Great White way and the romance and magic of those theatres. It started friendships and a life long pastime with my Mum. Only yesterday Mum said to me ‘I don’t care how we do it but we’ll make it there (to NY) for Angels’. And that’s really the marker of all this- theatre, going to New York, and the PhD have been a family affair for so long, and Angels being tied up in so much New York mythology for me- for us- has been part of that. All of which me to a PhD, which led me to all this.

I’d be so happy for any production in New York, but to ‘fly’ it ‘home’ with this production so dear to my heart and that made such an impact, that’s something important.  So in just under a year’s time, when it really is ‘Goodbye’ on Broadway, that feels like a right ending for me.

Under the Skin of Angels in America (Part 2)

The previous post contains the introductory material from the day. During that portion of the day we had talks from Matthew Hodson (Executive Director of NAM ) and Activist Jonathan Blake who talks about HIV ‘Then and Now’ and their personal experiences. Following this the National Theatre Archivist brought in the records from the original production of Angels and explained how and why the National Theatre archives material. More information on the archive (Which is open to the public to access records by appointment) can be found here.

For the afternoon session we were joined by Professor Jonathan Bell of UCL who delivered a talk on the history of healthcare in the USA, with particular reference to the AIDS epidemic. And members of the NT acting company delivered extracts from the play and answered questions on working on the text from an actor’s point of view. 
My own talks centred on Philosophy in Kushner’s work, History, Gay Life and the representation of the AIDS epidemic in the play. I concluded with a reflection on the play ‘then and now’ before a Q&A session. 



Philosophy

Angels in America took on AIDS within the context of American political and spiritual history and set it within the broader question of American history, political, spiritual and social. A world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. These theatrical techniques allow Kushner to pose challenges to the audience through political debate, emotional resonance and through Angels of the title tie these questions across broader notions of spirituality and identity.



Kushner’s use of the Angel draws on philosopher Walter Benjamin’s work, in Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History(1940) uses the metaphor of the ‘angel of history’. Benjamin’s Angels also reference the Paul Klee painting ‘Angelus Novus’ (1920). The ideas Kushner draws on are philosophy on how we understand and respond to history, of which his Angels become agents in the play. Visiting Prior in the play, the Angel seems to initially be a messenger related to Prior’s illness. However, the Angels are symbolic of the empty and useless words of government. Abandoned by God they are doomed to inaction and useless bureaucracy, for which their only solution is a doctrine of inaction. The parallels between the political philosophy of non-intervention in Conservative politics, the wider American philosophy of individualism and the literal inaction of Reagan’s Government. In rejecting the Angels’ philosophy through Prior Kushner draws on the philosophy of Raymond Williams, and ideas of ‘walking backwards into the future’- the idea of history as an imperative for change.
Angelus Novus 

Walter Benjamin 

When Louis invokes the play’s title- in a near 10-minute-long monologue which wouldn’t be out of place on a poorly constructed political blog today- says;
[T]here are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people.’
For Louis, then, politics is the central facet of American life. As they do across Kushner’s writing. 

Politics



Philosophy and Politics loom equally large in the plays. When the plays begin President, Reagan had begun his second term in office in January and his Right-Wing, Conservative Politics had a stronghold on America. The Cold War though showing signs of a thaw, continued and the fear of Nuclear War was still present. Meanwhile, fifteen years from the year 2000 and an undercurrent of Apocalyptic fears looms large. The subtitles of each part giving hints of this influence. Millennium Approaches indicating the combination of Doomsday and Conspiracy theories that were building pace, as the new Millennium approaches. And the Angels of the text give voice to this broader religion fuelled, philosophical questions of the era. The subtitle for part two, Perestroika, the name given to the policy reform of the Communist Party in Russia under Gorbachev, a marker for how intrinsically politics and history are woven into the play. These elements are all at work in the play where politics are debated alongside religion and questions of morality, while mysterious Angelic figures seem to tie across the personal, political and spiritual.

Reagan looming large



President Ronald Reagan of course looms large in Kushner’s writing, his inaction on the AIDS crisis being what much of the gay community would remember him for, but Kushner’s writing, seeks to bring Reagan to account for other areas of his policy as well.  Although then Reagan is sometimes remembered as one who created economic growth, and helped end the Cold War, his social policies and the longer term negative impact on society. Known for his populist conservatism as well as his role in the end of the Cold War. Reagan became known for his economic policy of ‘Reganomics’ which lowered taxes considerably but forced cuts to social benefits, his idea of ‘rugged individualism’ suited the Right-Wing notions of his supporters but left many Americans vulnerable.

Politics in Angels are embodied on one side by Louis and his leftist, often idealist politic and Belize, who adds an element of reality to his idealism. On the other side, Louis faces off against Joe, staunch Republican but a man determined to do good in life. References such as Louis’ teasing, flirtatious first meeting with Joe illustrate this:

Louis: Ha. Reaganite heartless macho asshole lawyers.
Joe: Oh that’s unfair.
Louis: What is? Heartless? Macho? Reaganite? Lawyer?
Joe: I voted for Reagan.
Louis: You did?
Joe: Twice.                       
Louis: Twice? Well, oh boy. A gay Republican!

Later, in Perestroika, Louis becomes uncomfortable with Joe’s politics, and his closeness to Roy Cohn, and challenges Joe over several court decisions which reflect this Reaganite outlook citing the Government’s avoiding any responsibility for its citizens wherever possible. He uses the famous question from Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings- at which Roy Cohn was a lawyer- “Have you no decency” to make his feelings about his lover’s political leanings known.

LOUIS: “Have you no decency, at long last, sir, have you no decency at all?”
JOE: I DON’T KNOW WHO SAID IT! Why are you doing this to me?! I… I love you! Please believe me, please, I love you. Stop hurting me like –
LOUIS: Joseph Welch! The Army/McCarthy hearings! Ask Roy. He’ll tell you. He knows. He was there.


And in the other corner, Roy Cohn, the embodiment of politics for personal gain. The real Roy Cohn, was a prominent Republican and lawyer to the both Army-McCarthy hearings or ‘Witch Trials’ and later Donald Trump. This famous client of Roy’s serving now to show that the politics Kushner is writing about-and against- may no longer feel so far removed for contemporary audiences. Although a fictionalised version of the real Cohn, the reality of Cohn’s political and legal actions are woven into the play as he becomes a symbol of Reagan’s America. His status-led outlook and emphasis on ‘where an individual sit in the food chain’ is reflective of the Reagan era-attitude towards social policy.


Kushner’s politics are a departure from previous AIDS plays, such as Hoffan’s As Is which is largely a-political or at the other extreme Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which puts its politics before it’s theatrics. Kushner hopes for some middle ground and the politics are also wider, beyond AIDS, beyond even the anti-Republican anti-Reagan stance of his work, Kushner is concerned with politics in the broader, more philosophical sense.



An interesting note in the staging history of the play however, is that the American workshop production of both parts of the play together at took place on the eve of Bill Clinton’s election- November 2nd 1992. David Roman- academic, writer, performer and gay man- wrote in his 1995 book ‘Acts of Intervention’ about the significance he felt seeing that performance with fellow performers, AIDS activist and HIV positive companions. “We are five gay men who have lived to be thirty-years old and beyond an accomplishment we never lose sight of these days’. When writing about his experience of the plays David Roman talked about the idea of Kushner’s plays representing a kind of watershed moment- both in terms of politics outside of the plays, and the personal community politics. Which is in face the line that Kushner treads so well- big politics of America, philosophy of politics tied up in the Angels and the personal politics of community.


Of course, ultimately, the power of Kushner’s politics is that-accidentally, and unfortunately it does feel incredibly current. As James McArdle comments “It captures an epoch in a way that is rare. It’s almost like a prophecy as to where we are now. When Trump got in I started to think about all the parallels but it’s actually worse than parallels now. Reagan looks benign compared to The Donald.”

End of Part 2 


Under the Skin of Angels in America (Part 2)

The previous post contains the introductory material from the day. During that portion of the day we had talks from Matthew Hodson (Executive Director of NAM ) and Activist Jonathan Blake who talks about HIV ‘Then and Now’ and their personal experiences. Following this the National Theatre Archivist brought in the records from the original production of Angels and explained how and why the National Theatre archives material. More information on the archive (Which is open to the public to access records by appointment) can be found here.

For the afternoon session we were joined by Professor Jonathan Bell of UCL who delivered a talk on the history of healthcare in the USA, with particular reference to the AIDS epidemic. And members of the NT acting company delivered extracts from the play and answered questions on working on the text from an actor’s point of view. 
My own talks centred on Philosophy in Kushner’s work, History, Gay Life and the representation of the AIDS epidemic in the play. I concluded with a reflection on the play ‘then and now’ before a Q&A session. 



Philosophy

Angels in America took on AIDS within the context of American political and spiritual history and set it within the broader question of American history, political, spiritual and social. A world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. These theatrical techniques allow Kushner to pose challenges to the audience through political debate, emotional resonance and through Angels of the title tie these questions across broader notions of spirituality and identity.



Kushner’s use of the Angel draws on philosopher Walter Benjamin’s work, in Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History(1940) uses the metaphor of the ‘angel of history’. Benjamin’s Angels also reference the Paul Klee painting ‘Angelus Novus’ (1920). The ideas Kushner draws on are philosophy on how we understand and respond to history, of which his Angels become agents in the play. Visiting Prior in the play, the Angel seems to initially be a messenger related to Prior’s illness. However, the Angels are symbolic of the empty and useless words of government. Abandoned by God they are doomed to inaction and useless bureaucracy, for which their only solution is a doctrine of inaction. The parallels between the political philosophy of non-intervention in Conservative politics, the wider American philosophy of individualism and the literal inaction of Reagan’s Government. In rejecting the Angels’ philosophy through Prior Kushner draws on the philosophy of Raymond Williams, and ideas of ‘walking backwards into the future’- the idea of history as an imperative for change.
Angelus Novus 

Walter Benjamin 

When Louis invokes the play’s title- in a near 10-minute-long monologue which wouldn’t be out of place on a poorly constructed political blog today- says;
[T]here are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people.’
For Louis, then, politics is the central facet of American life. As they do across Kushner’s writing. 

Politics



Philosophy and Politics loom equally large in the plays. When the plays begin President, Reagan had begun his second term in office in January and his Right-Wing, Conservative Politics had a stronghold on America. The Cold War though showing signs of a thaw, continued and the fear of Nuclear War was still present. Meanwhile, fifteen years from the year 2000 and an undercurrent of Apocalyptic fears looms large. The subtitles of each part giving hints of this influence. Millennium Approaches indicating the combination of Doomsday and Conspiracy theories that were building pace, as the new Millennium approaches. And the Angels of the text give voice to this broader religion fuelled, philosophical questions of the era. The subtitle for part two, Perestroika, the name given to the policy reform of the Communist Party in Russia under Gorbachev, a marker for how intrinsically politics and history are woven into the play. These elements are all at work in the play where politics are debated alongside religion and questions of morality, while mysterious Angelic figures seem to tie across the personal, political and spiritual.

Reagan looming large



President Ronald Reagan of course looms large in Kushner’s writing, his inaction on the AIDS crisis being what much of the gay community would remember him for, but Kushner’s writing, seeks to bring Reagan to account for other areas of his policy as well.  Although then Reagan is sometimes remembered as one who created economic growth, and helped end the Cold War, his social policies and the longer term negative impact on society. Known for his populist conservatism as well as his role in the end of the Cold War. Reagan became known for his economic policy of ‘Reganomics’ which lowered taxes considerably but forced cuts to social benefits, his idea of ‘rugged individualism’ suited the Right-Wing notions of his supporters but left many Americans vulnerable.

Politics in Angels are embodied on one side by Louis and his leftist, often idealist politic and Belize, who adds an element of reality to his idealism. On the other side, Louis faces off against Joe, staunch Republican but a man determined to do good in life. References such as Louis’ teasing, flirtatious first meeting with Joe illustrate this:

Louis: Ha. Reaganite heartless macho asshole lawyers.
Joe: Oh that’s unfair.
Louis: What is? Heartless? Macho? Reaganite? Lawyer?
Joe: I voted for Reagan.
Louis: You did?
Joe: Twice.                       
Louis: Twice? Well, oh boy. A gay Republican!

Later, in Perestroika, Louis becomes uncomfortable with Joe’s politics, and his closeness to Roy Cohn, and challenges Joe over several court decisions which reflect this Reaganite outlook citing the Government’s avoiding any responsibility for its citizens wherever possible. He uses the famous question from Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings- at which Roy Cohn was a lawyer- “Have you no decency” to make his feelings about his lover’s political leanings known.

LOUIS: “Have you no decency, at long last, sir, have you no decency at all?”
JOE: I DON’T KNOW WHO SAID IT! Why are you doing this to me?! I… I love you! Please believe me, please, I love you. Stop hurting me like –
LOUIS: Joseph Welch! The Army/McCarthy hearings! Ask Roy. He’ll tell you. He knows. He was there.


And in the other corner, Roy Cohn, the embodiment of politics for personal gain. The real Roy Cohn, was a prominent Republican and lawyer to the both Army-McCarthy hearings or ‘Witch Trials’ and later Donald Trump. This famous client of Roy’s serving now to show that the politics Kushner is writing about-and against- may no longer feel so far removed for contemporary audiences. Although a fictionalised version of the real Cohn, the reality of Cohn’s political and legal actions are woven into the play as he becomes a symbol of Reagan’s America. His status-led outlook and emphasis on ‘where an individual sit in the food chain’ is reflective of the Reagan era-attitude towards social policy.


Kushner’s politics are a departure from previous AIDS plays, such as Hoffan’s As Is which is largely a-political or at the other extreme Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which puts its politics before it’s theatrics. Kushner hopes for some middle ground and the politics are also wider, beyond AIDS, beyond even the anti-Republican anti-Reagan stance of his work, Kushner is concerned with politics in the broader, more philosophical sense.



An interesting note in the staging history of the play however, is that the American workshop production of both parts of the play together at took place on the eve of Bill Clinton’s election- November 2nd 1992. David Roman- academic, writer, performer and gay man- wrote in his 1995 book ‘Acts of Intervention’ about the significance he felt seeing that performance with fellow performers, AIDS activist and HIV positive companions. “We are five gay men who have lived to be thirty-years old and beyond an accomplishment we never lose sight of these days’. When writing about his experience of the plays David Roman talked about the idea of Kushner’s plays representing a kind of watershed moment- both in terms of politics outside of the plays, and the personal community politics. Which is in face the line that Kushner treads so well- big politics of America, philosophy of politics tied up in the Angels and the personal politics of community.


Of course, ultimately, the power of Kushner’s politics is that-accidentally, and unfortunately it does feel incredibly current. As James McArdle comments “It captures an epoch in a way that is rare. It’s almost like a prophecy as to where we are now. When Trump got in I started to think about all the parallels but it’s actually worse than parallels now. Reagan looks benign compared to The Donald.”

End of Part 2 


‘Under the Skin of Angels in America’ (Part 1)

In May 2017 the National Theatre invited me to curate an ‘Education Day’ which they run for adult audiences (ie not school or University groups) and are entire days based around a particular play. Titled ‘Under the Skin of Angels in America’ I delieverd a ‘Keynote’ as well as a series of link-sections between sections.

The following are extracts from my talks on that day.

Introduction
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was once referred to as ‘the most talked about, written about and awarded play of the past decade or more. My relationship with the play began in 2004, with the film version. As a group of students, battling a Montreal winter (which is long and cold) the DVD rental store was our friend. And my flatmate sold me 6 hours of Angels in America with the description “It’s about AIDS, it’s supposed to be good”. In the end, I think I was the only one who watched it. From that began a path that led me to first to the first British revival in 2007, to a Masters Dissertation, and finally a PhD. (For those interested in a more in-depth personal reflection on my history with the play, it can be found here)

My PhD the snappily titled Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: transposing and reviving American dramatic depictions of AIDS to the British stage in Angels in America and Rent (Which can be found here) This thesis was a look at the original, and first revivals of two key plays that talked about HIV/AIDS.  I spent a lot of time looking back, at the period in history, the theatrical context, archive records and reviews (I can tell you what Michael Billington said about virtually everything that opened in 1993 and 1995 which might be a weird Mastermind subject one day). But I also spent a lot of time thinking about how relevant this play is today.

 ‘The World Only Spins Forward’ Prior Walker declares in his final address to the audience in Angels in America, and it is indeed a play about progress, but it’s also a play about reflection. The play looks back on American history, on human history to ask how we might progress. As the Angels fly once again to London’s South Bank, it’s also a fitting reflection on theatrical history, and this production, on the art of theatrical progress. And also, a play that speaks very much to our current times, and to humanity as a whole. Although subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ and known as an ‘AIDS play’ what we actually get is far more universal. It’s a play that talks about love, about loss, about struggling with who you really are-or want to be. About change in life-making that change or dealing with it. About negotiating your place in the world. And ultimately, it’s about people.

It’s also a fascinating piece of theatrical history and theatrical work. So, these form the basis of this section and indeed the day; Angels and its importance as both a theatrical work, through what we see on stage and the significance of it being staged. And then beyond that, what the plays says to us, what it said in 1994 and what it still says today.  


Production History


Original National Theatre Artwork 



It is a return home for Kushner’s Angels. Despite being the product of ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ of the American variety, it was in the National Theatre that the play officially premiered. Although commissioned by a combination of a National Endowment for the Arts award and the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, The National Theatre played a key role in developing the play. Artistic director Richard Eyre read the play almost by accident, having been snowed in, and on reading the play wrote in his diary I knew halfway down the first page – a virtuoso monologue by Roy Cohn having three phone conversations, one of them trying to book tickets for Cats – that I wanted to put it on.” Immediately he sent it to Declan Donnellan one half of Cheek By Jowl theatre company who would collaborate to bring it to the National’s stage.

Original Broadway Artwork 



The moment of ‘World Premiere’ of both Millennium and Perestroika was in fact gotten on a technicality- the Broadway Production should have opened simultaneously, but they were delayed by technical issues (Angels are stubborn in their flying) and so on November 20th, 1993, Parts 1 and 2 officially opened in London, three days ahead of their Broadway counterparts. British theatre took to it, with reviews that praised the size and scope of the play, while Broadway critics including Frank Rich, made the journey to see the British version of what would quickly become an American classic. The actors themselves were also incredibly excited by the play, including two relative unknowns Daniel Craig (Joe Pitt) and Jason Issacs (Louis Ironson). Issacs said of it; “Salman Rushdie’s bodyguards, even, who could barely bring themselves to look at the stage for horror at the gay sex and love unfolding in front of them were riveted and opened up by the end.” There are stories of celebrities who flocked- New Yorkers who came over, people who queued every night for a year for returns (and one who became an actress as a result) but it also changed the actors. Issacs remembers sitting in the wings and saying to his co-starts “I was just thinking that nothing will ever touch this. Whatever I do, this’ll always be the high watermark.” Despite them being veteran actors in comparison they agreed. It was the kind of experience from which nobody left unchanged.


Since then it has won many accolades and awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has become one of the most talked about, analysed and awarded American dramas of the twentieth century. It has been adapted for television, in 2003’s HBO miniseries, translated into numerous languages, and been made into an opera. A world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. Almost immediately following its opening critics and academics were canonising Kushner’s play as a turning point in American drama, shifting both in challenging content but also its Epic, innovative approach to American drama which had for decades before been mainly rooted in the domestic and naturalistic.



So, the announcement that Angels would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ might suggest. But added to this Angels has come back bigger than its original National Theatre production, taking instead of the intimate and adaptable space of the Cottesloe, the larger traditional proscenium arch space of the Lyttleton. It’s also brought with it a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming as a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself, that the NT has returned to the production on such a scale. Including it in the celebration of 50 years was an indication of its importance to theatrical history. But why does a play about 1980s America, specifically the title might suggest Gay America resonate still?

Part 2 of the talks follows this. Following here are a note on staging and on the character of Roy Cohn included as ‘footnotes’ to the main talks. 


Plot Summary

Spider Diagram of Character links. That was a Friday night in April. Also SPIDER diagram. 

The scope and scale of Kushner’s plays is far reaching and theatrically ambitious. Featuring over 30 characters usually played by 8 characters, it stretches from New York, to San Francisco, Salt Lake City and indeed to Heaven itself. A two-part story told through Part One Millennium Approaches, and Part Two Perestroika. At the centre of all of this is Prior Walter, diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, his partner Louis unable to cope with the situation, leaves his lover and eventually takes up with closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt. Joe, being the antithesis of everything Louis stands for, and being the protégé of Roy Cohn, a character based on the real Reaganite closeted Lawyer who denied he had AIDS until the end of his life. Meanwhile Harper, Joe’s wife, slipping off into Valium fuelled dreams, meets Prior who is increasingly troubled by such spectral visions. And while Louis carries on his affair, Joe juggles his sense of self, pressure from Roy and Harper explores who she might be without Joe, Prior finds himself the focus of an Angel’s attention- through appearing in his dreams, passing on of prophecies and an eventual trip to Heaven, Prior becomes a conduit for Angelic philosophising. 

A note on Roy Cohn
Kushner has Roy say in Perestroika ‘It’s history. I didn’t write, it though I flatter myself I am a footnote.’ For his role in both the Rosenburg trial and the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn is a figure of historical significance. Cohn had a highly successful and influential legal career in New York before being disbarred shortly before his death for misconduct.  Cohn is no stranger to fictionalisation, appearing in or referenced across popular culture- from X Files to The Simpsons to other AIDS theatre-including performance artist Ron Vawter’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith.
Kushner when asked what his play is about or what he set out to talk about says ‘America, Mormons and AIDS’. The first in part comes from his feeling that having been given money from the Government via the National Endowment for the Arts that he should in fact also write about America. Mormons, in part are a mystery best left for Kushner and his own fascination. But a good theory is that Mormons are the only (Native American aside) American grown religion, an implanted variation on Judaic-Christian origins, but altered and born of the ‘new world’ itself very American. And of course, the legend of the Angel, Moroni not Mormon (which has Harper asks, ‘why aren’t we called Morons then?’). Along with the wholesome values associated with the religion, again offers commentary on facets of American society. 

A note on Staging


Kushner describes his play as ‘Brechtian Epic’ it’s in fact been described as ‘American Epic’ indicating an almost ‘category of its own’ play. Kushner does derive from Brechtian theatre, but also American theatre- he is for example also heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams. Both account for the merging of domestic, wordy, often emotional writing with more abstract theatrical approaches.

The actor-driven nature of the play emphasises Kushner’s Brechtian influences. The idea of doubling and the significance of the actors as a company highlighted by Kushner are intrinsic in bringing his work to life. He is specific that the play is written for eight actors and that they double. Kushner has made it clear in interviews discussing his play each doubling of roles has significance for the characters but it also fosters a sense of community.

Doubling is an important Brechtian and Epic convention, contributing to Brecht’s famous alienation technique. This creates a feeling for an audience of always being aware that the actor is playing a part. Brechtian epic staging: ‘benefits from a pared down style, with minimal scenery’, that scene changes are ‘rapid and without blackout’, and that it is an ‘actor driven event.’  And realised as ‘theatrical illusion’ that ‘the wires may show’. By this, he means that the effects he requests in the text should be ‘fully realised’ and ‘thoroughly amazing’ but that the audience should also be aware that they are effects.

In Angels, this approach isn’t as obvious in Millennium which is a more traditional narrative driven story. In this production, Elliot has made the division clearer by clever staging which emphasises the naturalistic in Millennium and slowly but surely pulls the rug (quite literally at one point) from actors and audience in Perestroika. For the theatrical nerd in everyone, a clever use of a rain machine in both parts indicates this technique in action. Epic theatre places actor and audience in a joint project in relation to the play they are performing and watching, removing the theoretical (and often literal) space that had previously existed between them. For the politics and philosophy of Angels this approach is integral, but also coupled with an engaging piece of theatrical storytelling. 

End of Part 1

‘Under the Skin of Angels in America’ (Part 1)

In May 2017 the National Theatre invited me to curate an ‘Education Day’ which they run for adult audiences (ie not school or University groups) and are entire days based around a particular play. Titled ‘Under the Skin of Angels in America’ I delieverd a ‘Keynote’ as well as a series of link-sections between sections.

The following are extracts from my talks on that day.

Introduction
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was once referred to as ‘the most talked about, written about and awarded play of the past decade or more. My relationship with the play began in 2004, with the film version. As a group of students, battling a Montreal winter (which is long and cold) the DVD rental store was our friend. And my flatmate sold me 6 hours of Angels in America with the description “It’s about AIDS, it’s supposed to be good”. In the end, I think I was the only one who watched it. From that began a path that led me to first to the first British revival in 2007, to a Masters Dissertation, and finally a PhD. (For those interested in a more in-depth personal reflection on my history with the play, it can be found here)

My PhD the snappily titled Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: transposing and reviving American dramatic depictions of AIDS to the British stage in Angels in America and Rent (Which can be found here) This thesis was a look at the original, and first revivals of two key plays that talked about HIV/AIDS.  I spent a lot of time looking back, at the period in history, the theatrical context, archive records and reviews (I can tell you what Michael Billington said about virtually everything that opened in 1993 and 1995 which might be a weird Mastermind subject one day). But I also spent a lot of time thinking about how relevant this play is today.

 ‘The World Only Spins Forward’ Prior Walker declares in his final address to the audience in Angels in America, and it is indeed a play about progress, but it’s also a play about reflection. The play looks back on American history, on human history to ask how we might progress. As the Angels fly once again to London’s South Bank, it’s also a fitting reflection on theatrical history, and this production, on the art of theatrical progress. And also, a play that speaks very much to our current times, and to humanity as a whole. Although subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ and known as an ‘AIDS play’ what we actually get is far more universal. It’s a play that talks about love, about loss, about struggling with who you really are-or want to be. About change in life-making that change or dealing with it. About negotiating your place in the world. And ultimately, it’s about people.

It’s also a fascinating piece of theatrical history and theatrical work. So, these form the basis of this section and indeed the day; Angels and its importance as both a theatrical work, through what we see on stage and the significance of it being staged. And then beyond that, what the plays says to us, what it said in 1994 and what it still says today.  


Production History


Original National Theatre Artwork 



It is a return home for Kushner’s Angels. Despite being the product of ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ of the American variety, it was in the National Theatre that the play officially premiered. Although commissioned by a combination of a National Endowment for the Arts award and the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, The National Theatre played a key role in developing the play. Artistic director Richard Eyre read the play almost by accident, having been snowed in, and on reading the play wrote in his diary I knew halfway down the first page – a virtuoso monologue by Roy Cohn having three phone conversations, one of them trying to book tickets for Cats – that I wanted to put it on.” Immediately he sent it to Declan Donnellan one half of Cheek By Jowl theatre company who would collaborate to bring it to the National’s stage.

Original Broadway Artwork 



The moment of ‘World Premiere’ of both Millennium and Perestroika was in fact gotten on a technicality- the Broadway Production should have opened simultaneously, but they were delayed by technical issues (Angels are stubborn in their flying) and so on November 20th, 1993, Parts 1 and 2 officially opened in London, three days ahead of their Broadway counterparts. British theatre took to it, with reviews that praised the size and scope of the play, while Broadway critics including Frank Rich, made the journey to see the British version of what would quickly become an American classic. The actors themselves were also incredibly excited by the play, including two relative unknowns Daniel Craig (Joe Pitt) and Jason Issacs (Louis Ironson). Issacs said of it; “Salman Rushdie’s bodyguards, even, who could barely bring themselves to look at the stage for horror at the gay sex and love unfolding in front of them were riveted and opened up by the end.” There are stories of celebrities who flocked- New Yorkers who came over, people who queued every night for a year for returns (and one who became an actress as a result) but it also changed the actors. Issacs remembers sitting in the wings and saying to his co-starts “I was just thinking that nothing will ever touch this. Whatever I do, this’ll always be the high watermark.” Despite them being veteran actors in comparison they agreed. It was the kind of experience from which nobody left unchanged.


Since then it has won many accolades and awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has become one of the most talked about, analysed and awarded American dramas of the twentieth century. It has been adapted for television, in 2003’s HBO miniseries, translated into numerous languages, and been made into an opera. A world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. Almost immediately following its opening critics and academics were canonising Kushner’s play as a turning point in American drama, shifting both in challenging content but also its Epic, innovative approach to American drama which had for decades before been mainly rooted in the domestic and naturalistic.



So, the announcement that Angels would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ might suggest. But added to this Angels has come back bigger than its original National Theatre production, taking instead of the intimate and adaptable space of the Cottesloe, the larger traditional proscenium arch space of the Lyttleton. It’s also brought with it a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming as a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself, that the NT has returned to the production on such a scale. Including it in the celebration of 50 years was an indication of its importance to theatrical history. But why does a play about 1980s America, specifically the title might suggest Gay America resonate still?

Part 2 of the talks follows this. Following here are a note on staging and on the character of Roy Cohn included as ‘footnotes’ to the main talks. 


Plot Summary

Spider Diagram of Character links. That was a Friday night in April. Also SPIDER diagram. 

The scope and scale of Kushner’s plays is far reaching and theatrically ambitious. Featuring over 30 characters usually played by 8 characters, it stretches from New York, to San Francisco, Salt Lake City and indeed to Heaven itself. A two-part story told through Part One Millennium Approaches, and Part Two Perestroika. At the centre of all of this is Prior Walter, diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, his partner Louis unable to cope with the situation, leaves his lover and eventually takes up with closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt. Joe, being the antithesis of everything Louis stands for, and being the protégé of Roy Cohn, a character based on the real Reaganite closeted Lawyer who denied he had AIDS until the end of his life. Meanwhile Harper, Joe’s wife, slipping off into Valium fuelled dreams, meets Prior who is increasingly troubled by such spectral visions. And while Louis carries on his affair, Joe juggles his sense of self, pressure from Roy and Harper explores who she might be without Joe, Prior finds himself the focus of an Angel’s attention- through appearing in his dreams, passing on of prophecies and an eventual trip to Heaven, Prior becomes a conduit for Angelic philosophising. 

A note on Roy Cohn
Kushner has Roy say in Perestroika ‘It’s history. I didn’t write, it though I flatter myself I am a footnote.’ For his role in both the Rosenburg trial and the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn is a figure of historical significance. Cohn had a highly successful and influential legal career in New York before being disbarred shortly before his death for misconduct.  Cohn is no stranger to fictionalisation, appearing in or referenced across popular culture- from X Files to The Simpsons to other AIDS theatre-including performance artist Ron Vawter’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith.
Kushner when asked what his play is about or what he set out to talk about says ‘America, Mormons and AIDS’. The first in part comes from his feeling that having been given money from the Government via the National Endowment for the Arts that he should in fact also write about America. Mormons, in part are a mystery best left for Kushner and his own fascination. But a good theory is that Mormons are the only (Native American aside) American grown religion, an implanted variation on Judaic-Christian origins, but altered and born of the ‘new world’ itself very American. And of course, the legend of the Angel, Moroni not Mormon (which has Harper asks, ‘why aren’t we called Morons then?’). Along with the wholesome values associated with the religion, again offers commentary on facets of American society. 

A note on Staging


Kushner describes his play as ‘Brechtian Epic’ it’s in fact been described as ‘American Epic’ indicating an almost ‘category of its own’ play. Kushner does derive from Brechtian theatre, but also American theatre- he is for example also heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams. Both account for the merging of domestic, wordy, often emotional writing with more abstract theatrical approaches.

The actor-driven nature of the play emphasises Kushner’s Brechtian influences. The idea of doubling and the significance of the actors as a company highlighted by Kushner are intrinsic in bringing his work to life. He is specific that the play is written for eight actors and that they double. Kushner has made it clear in interviews discussing his play each doubling of roles has significance for the characters but it also fosters a sense of community.

Doubling is an important Brechtian and Epic convention, contributing to Brecht’s famous alienation technique. This creates a feeling for an audience of always being aware that the actor is playing a part. Brechtian epic staging: ‘benefits from a pared down style, with minimal scenery’, that scene changes are ‘rapid and without blackout’, and that it is an ‘actor driven event.’  And realised as ‘theatrical illusion’ that ‘the wires may show’. By this, he means that the effects he requests in the text should be ‘fully realised’ and ‘thoroughly amazing’ but that the audience should also be aware that they are effects.

In Angels, this approach isn’t as obvious in Millennium which is a more traditional narrative driven story. In this production, Elliot has made the division clearer by clever staging which emphasises the naturalistic in Millennium and slowly but surely pulls the rug (quite literally at one point) from actors and audience in Perestroika. For the theatrical nerd in everyone, a clever use of a rain machine in both parts indicates this technique in action. Epic theatre places actor and audience in a joint project in relation to the play they are performing and watching, removing the theoretical (and often literal) space that had previously existed between them. For the politics and philosophy of Angels this approach is integral, but also coupled with an engaging piece of theatrical storytelling. 

End of Part 1