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‘You’ve got to have a theory’- Epilogue Thoughts

The Epilogue is perhaps the richest of all scenes in the entire two plays.
It divides people with some believing the whole thing would be better left at the point of the final ‘real time’ scenes. (So Prior and Louis’ final exchange and Harper’s monologue).  And while there’s a case for that- nothing is left entirely resolved and open to interpretation- the Epilogue only gives us clues that the respective directors and actors can play with. There’s also an important theatrical point to be made with the style of the Epilogue as well- and all this combines to really change the sense of the ending.
It’s a short (by Kushner standards) scene but also dialogue heavy. It is five years later- January 1990, and Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah visit the Bethesda fountain. In the film version it is Prior’s Birthday (he reminds us Thomas Jefferson died on his Birthday, Belize reminds him he isn’t Thomas Jefferson) In the play version, there’s no scripted reason for them to assemble, other than it’s something they now do. Which is something.
The 2007 version (Headlong, Daniel Kramer) cut most of the Epilogue, having Prior step out of his bed and address the audience. The politics edited out seen as dated and unnecessary perhaps. Here the politics- Louis and Belize bickering over Perestroika and Yugoslavia were deemed ‘dated’ and perhaps distracting, so the Epilogue focused only on Prior’s invocation to the audience. A valid approach but one that loses the wider sense of ‘what happened next’ that feels as valuable as the theatrical trope of fourth wall breaking and shift to the audience. And the way the Epilogue is played can also influence the final reading of the characters, and indeed the feeling you take away from the play. I don’t remember the same feeling of sheer hopefulness in 2007 as I do in 2017.
This version of the Epilogue in Elliott’s 2017 version is an example of how a production, and even a scene can change a whole take on a play. Personally, I’ve always had a rather macabre outlook. Asked about Rent (my other PhD text) and challenged on the ‘fairy-tale’ ending of it, I often reply ‘but Mimi’s a junkie with AIDS how long is she really going to last in the mid-80s.’ Harsh but, fair perhaps. I’ve always had a similarly grim outlook for Prior. Unlike my slightly dismissive attitude of Mimi (she gets on my nerves…oops) I do take a rather Motherly attitude towards Prior (call me Mother Pitt). But I always worried Kushner is giving us the glint of hope before reality snaps in. However, there is something so utterly hopeful in this production that is in a way utterly ineffable.  A great deal of which stems from the Epilogue- from the way the characters look, to their body language and interaction with each other and the staging of it in terms of what the audience is supposed to take away.
Firstly, costumes. I could write a book on these. Hannah and Prior are the only ones with actual descriptions of their appearance. Prior is described as ‘is heavily bundled, and he has thick glasses on and supports himself with a cane’ meanwhile Hannah Is noticeably different- she looks like a New Yorker and is reading The New York Times’ These two, have in the past five years, undergone the most radical changes, and it’s noted in their appearance. Hannah is dressed in a smart trench coat, black dress and smart black heels no longer the dowdier ‘Salt Lake City’ stylings of before, but sharp lines of an 80s New Yorker. Her overall demeanour shifts with the outfit- holding herself taller, asserting herself in the conversation with Belize and Louis.

Using some curtain call pictures as ones of the actual costumes are hard to find…
Belize meanwhile is as fabulous as ever. His signature bright colours remain, though perhaps a little toned down, a littler trendier rather than deliberately outlandish. In a similar checked coat to his earlier one- this one yellow rather than pink- and stonewash, 90s style jeans, along with his signature scarf- a plainer yellow and brown to match the coat. Belize is chic, fashionable and still fabulous. But perhaps a bit more grown up, a little less trying to scream a statement with his clothes, but still marking his personality. It’s a subtle shift in Belize, indicating he hasn’t changed quite as much. An indicator that Belize is our most ‘together’ of characters- he’s probably changed as we all do over 5 years but not substantially as Belize was already secure in himself, mature and sure of himself. His unchanged, only slightly updated, hip 90s wardrobe show Belize continues to simply be fabulous Belize.

Louis. Oh Louis. It’s subtle but he changes as much as Prior and Hannah. He has shoes on for a start. It might seem a minor detail, but five years later Louis is wearing smart dress shoes. Every other scene from work to his Grandmother’s funeral he’s worn the same battered trainers. He’s also wearing a smart coat, what’s more one that fits. As do his trousers and shirt. They’re also subtly colour coordinated- shades of dark blue. The last time we saw Louis he was wearing a grey T-shirt that didn’t quite fit properly and possibly also hadn’t been washed in several days. This is also the Louis who wore trainers to his Grandmother’s funeral. Now Louis I don’t want to sound like your Mother but is this a sign you finally learned to dress yourself or something more? Something more. Louis five years ago is a man very much at sea, even before Prior drops his bombshell Louis (and indeed Prior) isn’t a man with his life together. He’s an office temp, seems directionless, and we see that he’s still emotionally young struggles with life. His clothes reflect that- from the shabby overcoat that is too big, to scruffy trousers, untucked scruffy shirts and yes, those trainers. Now, from the things we have seen him go through, and whatever happens in the intervening five years, he looks like someone who is more together. From his more expensive looking clothes (his earlier outfits give mind to someone who either routinely buys second-hand or at least keeps clothes long after they’re worn out) indicates he probably has a ‘proper’ job now. He also cares about how he looks more perhaps- Louis before too caught up in anger at the world and politics, now thinks of himself more.
And Prior. We never really see Prior in ‘normal’ clothes. We see him in Pyjamas, hospital gowns, heavenly robes and his ‘Prophet’ outfit.  These serve a purpose other than simply clothes- even his funeral outfit at the start we can assume is chosen in part as a sort of armour- like the more extreme Prophet outfit later. Every day Prior is missing in all that. This feels like an evolved version of that. Well-tailored, smart and put together this is probably who Prior wanted to be all along before being derailed. Although Kushner suggests ‘bundled up’ it’s smart to simply put him in an overcoat and scarf- bundled up would make him look frail and this Prior isn’t frail. He’s put back together and fighting. His coat is smart, a timeless chequered herringbone design. He wears a woolly jumper in burgundy carefully coordinated with his winter scarf. Gone are the outlandish prints or over the top outfits, it’s stripped back clean and simple- again perhaps a marker of his wider attitude to life. His hair is tidied and styled for the first time really since the opening scene. His glasses, while an indicator of his still ailing sight, are stylish (of course). Prior feels put back together again in this outfit.
The Epilogue tells us a few vital things no matter how it’s staged- that Hannah stayed in New York, that she stayed friend with Prior and by default Louis and Belize. That Louis and Prior stayed friends, and that Belize is still friends with all of them. They’ve formed a strange urban family of sorts. We find Prior has been living with AIDS for 5 years (6 whole months longer than he lived with Louis) and intends to go on living more. There’s theories to have around what happened before and
The narrative of the Epilogue is useful, but it’s existence in terms of staging is more vital, particularly in this production. Firstly, Elliott directs both plays as one. There’s no real seam between Millennium and Perestroika, yes there is a shift in style, but this stems from the text and is a gradual build rather than an outright distinction. That build, which begins actually begins at the end of Millennium as Harper creates Antarctica in her mind, as the dense set of the first half strips back. Things remain stripped back, the Brechtian notes build until we reach ‘Heaven’. At which point everything is stripped back to the shell of the theatre. The Epilogue is the logical conclusion of this- when the last crack in the fourth wall falls. And it’s vital for the play to work to have Prior give the audience that moment- to turn it on them.
Elliott plays it well. The Heaven scene sets up the extended idea of the stage and auditorium as sharing the same space. And subtly she builds on this from the opening of the Epilogue. The house lights begin to get higher, gradually so it’s barely noticeable. But by the time Prior is addressing the audience, they are fully lit. But the realistic sounds of New York echo in the background. The room is at once Central Park and the Lyttleton again. It’s a vital moment of blurring lines and walls. There is also a moment of switch with the lights on the audience- we are vulnerable now. (I actually mentally cursed Elliott for this the first time as well) . After an entire day of seeing Prior at his most vulnerable, it’s us who are exposed- and with it compelled to follow his command.
Garfield shifts his performance too, I’ve written before about a theory of that moment in his performance bleeding both actor and performer- is it a bit of Prior an Garfield addressing us at that moment? Perhaps. And although he starts his monologue earlier in the scene with ‘Let’s turn the volume down on this’ that portion of Prior’s address is delivered as a monologue, within the world of the play. It’s at the final line of the first monologue ‘It’s January 1990’ that something switches in his delivery- he leans in a makes it clear to the audience it’s for them. His tone shift, like a lecturer romanticising on the play. He shares a nod a joke with the audience ‘I like them best when they’re statuary’. And then Prior/Garfield breaks the walls down for everyone else- until now, in the background in character. With his ‘Louis will tell you her story’ he breaks Louis out of that world and into the world he is addressing – our world. McArdle plays is well with a startled ‘Oh. Um’ and a look of realising the audience are suddenly there. With him Belize and Hannah seem to also blur the lines as well. The three of them stand somewhat awkwardly with Prior like children suddenly presented to meet a teacher as he concludes his speech.
There’s a sheer sense of joy to that final speech however, there’s no fear to Garfield’s Prior at this point. It’s celebratory. He’s made it this far, surrounded by friends and he plans to carry on. And his enthusiasm for it is infectious. He in this moment seems to feel invincible and that conveys to the audience. It’s possible for Prior to retain some fear at this point, frailty or wariness. None of that in him. It’s defiant, joyous but it is also very much an invocation to the audience. The Epilogue is the reason that I never leave Angels in tears-not this production anyway. I leave emotional, I leave ripped apart and put back together. I sob my way through Prior in Heaven, and through Harper’s monologue. But while the Epilogue is overwhelmingly emotional it’s also joyous. It’s full of hope and it puts the action of the play in our hands. And it is for me the most perfect ending to the play. ‘More Life’ indeed.
I get that for some people the Epilogue doesn’t work. That it might feel like reaching for things, forced tying up of loose ends. Or an odd theatrical device that isn’t needed. But for me that theatrical punctuation is exactly needed- Elliott shows this perfectly with this production. It’s precisely how the theatrical conclusion should be reached. And while theatrically it’s a perfect ending, in terms of character it doesn’t so much neatly tie up endings, but open many more questions. And that’s also why I love it.
‘You’ve got to have a theory’ Louis tells us.  And oh I have plenty. The second half of this post is about my theories, ideas and alright, outright fan-fiction about what it all means in the Epilogue in terms of character.
First the absent friends- Joe and Harper. Kushner has said that he tried to or attempted to write Joe’s story. But actually, like Joe I prefer it a little lost. Joe is the only one without a resolution, and that works because Joe at this point is without resolution. He probably spends some, if not many years ‘Lost’ as Harper instructs him-unintentionally so. There are probably a few more Louis’ in his future- men equally lost or damaged he falls in with. I feel Joe at this point is set on a self-destructive path of certainly more damaging relationships and sex, probably alcohol and maybe drugs.  He probably ends up infected with HIV despite all his protestations to Louis, more through a subconscious self-damaging streak. Does he speak to his Mother still? Probably not for a while, or at least in a strained manner. I like to think they eventually reconnect, and that in part Hannah’s staying in New York is in the hope of that. Does Joe eventually sort himself out? Yes, but I think he must go a long way down the rabbit hole for that to happen. There’s a lot of damage to undo and make sense of for Joe. 
Harper, finally free. Does she ever come back? Probably not. Does she stay in touch? In one way or another. Perhaps her ‘tantalising postcards’ come to Prior, much to the confusion of Belize and Louis, but to a knowing glance from Hannah. I think whatever cosmic link she has with Prior stays forever. The occasional vivid dream, drunken moment or simply daydream of vulnerability sees them connecting. If she does return to New York, it’s only Prior she sees- in the real world once again finally. But she’s happy wherever she is- like Hannah she starts again, and builds a life. It doesn’t matter we don’t know what she does because we know she’s going to be ok now.
And what of those we do see? Well Hannah has become a New Yorker. At some point realising Joe was probably lost to her for now (Unlike the film version where they have a momentary resolution, I see these two as torn apart for much of the foreseeable future). But having sold her house and had epiphany of a different kind at the hands of the Angel Hannah decides to stay. In my head, she does of course come back to visit Prior that same day, and the next, and the next. She possibly takes over from Belize taking care of him when he comes home, and probably never really stops- we see her in the Epilogue walking on arm in arm with him. Prior is easily affectionate with her and she accepts his kisses to her hands- she’s more at ease with physical contact than she ever was earlier in the play. What does Hannah do? I’d imagine she finds a quiet job somewhere- perhaps some kind of caring profession like a teaching assistant or something in a hospital. Or perhaps a little shop job. Either way she enjoys the independence. She’s still a Mormon-or at least still religious in some way, but not in a way that it dominates her life anymore. She’d volunteer-helping people. But more importantly she has her own life now- away from husband, the suffocating nature of Salt Lake and perhaps more regrettably from her son.
Belize? Well Belize is just doing what Belize does. He’s continuing to be fabulous in every way. Still fighting the good fight, and getting on with life. I kind of hope he gets a promotion at work (despite his slightly illegal activities with the drugs) and that he perhaps makes it more official with his ‘Man uptown’ in short I just hope he’s happy. And he’s Belize, he probably makes it happen.  And he’s still there at Prior’s side- their friendship has exceeded 10 years by this point (assuming they knew each other a year or two before Louis and Prior meet) and is the most enduring in Prior’s life (who doesn’t seem to have many friends). Oh and I think Belize goes back to Drag. Only in part to annoy Louis.
Louis, ah Louis. It’s tempting to think that everything that happened in the play is a kick up the arse and he changes overnight. But people don’t change like that, Louis certainly doesn’t. But everything that happens in the play I think puts him on the right path. He finally gets a job for a start- a proper one, not just a temp ‘word processor’. Louis is smart, we know that but he’s not found a use for the smarts he has. Politics is an obvious answer for Louis- a use for all the knowledge and ranting, but perhaps not. Perhaps an environment to encourage that side of him isn’t for the best. There’s a part of me that can see Louis as a teacher. The slightly off the wall history teacher who does a good side-line in politics. It also feels like a stable, calming influence for him. Whatever he discovers in those 5 years it stabilises him. He’s still Louis, but the venom is mostly gone from him. He’s not so much grown up as grown into himself.  
Prior, well firstly he gets well.  As well as he’s going to. The line ‘this is my life now’ in the scene before is so important- the element both of accepting his fate but also accepting his illness as part of him. Health wise it was no doubt a hard road from where Prior was at the end of the play to five years later, there would have been set backs and health scares and possibly another few close calls. But he’s lucky to have been the right side of drugs being developed and healthy enough for them to be of use. And five years later there he is. Health wise I always feared the worst for Prior- that his ‘I plan to be’ was too optimistic and in 1995 when Kushner was writing it may well have felt too optimistic for some. But that’s the beauty of revival- we can now see it wasn’t. There are plenty of Priors out there now- diagnosed in the late 80s and living their lives fully and healthily today.  And so I choose to say Prior was right- he sees that next Spring in the park, and the next and the next. More importantly it means Prior gets to live the life he hadn’t. His ‘I haven’t done anything yet’ is accurate- he’s living off a trust fund, being a club promoter in short indeed not doing a great deal. I think once he’s well again he changes that. Perhaps a bit of self-projection but I think he does something vaguely academic. I certainly think he goes back to school of some kind- uses his Trust Fund to support something different. I could see him doing something in religious studies and philosophy to finally unlock some of those Angel theories he has. Prior is intelligent, and I think whatever he does post-Angels is something that actually puts that intelligence to use. And he has a network now. He has Hannah, and Belize and I also think Nurse Emily stays in touch (and Harper somewhere out there). And perhaps Prior, who I see as a bit lonely before, makes friends through his AIDS diagnosis with others like him- in a strange way it is the making of him, and he endures.
And what of him and Louis? I’ve always loved that they stay friends, that to live through all that does bring you closer despite all of it. And that’s where I’ve always accepted it. But here’s the thing, when Prior in this production says ‘You can’t ever come back.’….I don’t believe him.
There’s still clearly something there between them- there’s some interesting body language in the Epilogue, particularly if you watch McArdle whenever Belize is near Prior. (one performance also saw an adorable, but also telling ‘play slapping’ between him and Belize). But there’s also simply the way his Louis looks at Prior still.  Louis’ feelings seem not to have changed- there’s a lovely line in puppy-dog glances and possessive body language McArdle gives us in the Epilogue. But there’s something there from Garfield as well, an easy charm with ‘his’ Louis that may just be a Prior now happy in his skin, his ‘family’ and one of his now oldest friends (going on 10 years at the time of the Epilogue).  There’s a 100 way to interpret their relationship and where it may have gone. But if I were writing the ‘fan fiction’ of this (which let’s face it that’s what I’m doing here) this is what I’d say…
Louis and Prior do stay friends. Louis is initially devastated by the fact that Prior says he can’t come back and that’s when the break up really hits him. But he’s determined to show Prior he has changed, so he puts on a front, and is there for Prior while he’s recovering. He doesn’t run away even though he’s now hurting at being rejected-he understands now that he deserves it and why. But when he says he still loves Prior it’s true, both in terms of romantic and platonic love. So he’s there for him this time.  At that point Prior really couldn’t take Louis back- he’s focused on recovering, on dealing with his diagnosis now. But they do slowly go back to being friends and in fact are closer than before (probably initially much to Belize’s disgust). And Louis is good and loyal because underneath- he is. And as time passes they end up in this comfortable, incredibly close friendship that sometimes exes do indeed manage.
Prior doesn’t date anyone else. And this is what would set suspicions alight. He is adamant it’s to focus on his health, and later putting his life back together. And there’s probably some element of not being able to move forward into a relationship, yes, some damage that Louis did but also that he and Louis seem to have this inextricable connection. Louis does date, but not seriously. Prior berates his choices with an withering amusement that none of them will be serious and none of them will last- and he’s right. And it is of course Prior he comes running to every time it goes wrong. Meanwhile Belize, all seeing all knowing suspects Prior still holds feelings for Louis and knows full well Louis always will for Prior. And he’s protective as ever, but he (perhaps with a word from Hannah) knows that Louis has grown up, and indeed that Prior knows his own mind (or will eventually when they figure it out and admit it all).
So where are they five years later? It feels like they’re drawing closer again. Perhaps there’s been a few slips into something more than friends when they’re alone. Perhaps not yet, perhaps each is trying to work up the nerve to admit things to themselves or each other. But there’s still something there, and the timing is starting to feel right. My instinct is that they haven’t actually got back together at this point, but they’re very much on the verge of it. Five years also feels like a suitable watershed and a suitable moment of ‘If it hasn’t’ gone away now it never will. And if you’re still here you still will be’ Prior and Louis have known each other nearing 10 years now, and Prior ‘not ever’ is a really long time…and I still don’t believe you.  

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‘You’ve got to have a theory’- Epilogue Thoughts

The Epilogue is perhaps the richest of all scenes in the entire two plays.
It divides people with some believing the whole thing would be better left at the point of the final ‘real time’ scenes. (So Prior and Louis’ final exchange and Harper’s monologue).  And while there’s a case for that- nothing is left entirely resolved and open to interpretation- the Epilogue only gives us clues that the respective directors and actors can play with. There’s also an important theatrical point to be made with the style of the Epilogue as well- and all this combines to really change the sense of the ending.
It’s a short (by Kushner standards) scene but also dialogue heavy. It is five years later- January 1990, and Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah visit the Bethesda fountain. In the film version it is Prior’s Birthday (he reminds us Thomas Jefferson died on his Birthday, Belize reminds him he isn’t Thomas Jefferson) In the play version, there’s no scripted reason for them to assemble, other than it’s something they now do. Which is something.
The 2007 version (Headlong, Daniel Kramer) cut most of the Epilogue, having Prior step out of his bed and address the audience. The politics edited out seen as dated and unnecessary perhaps. Here the politics- Louis and Belize bickering over Perestroika and Yugoslavia were deemed ‘dated’ and perhaps distracting, so the Epilogue focused only on Prior’s invocation to the audience. A valid approach but one that loses the wider sense of ‘what happened next’ that feels as valuable as the theatrical trope of fourth wall breaking and shift to the audience. And the way the Epilogue is played can also influence the final reading of the characters, and indeed the feeling you take away from the play. I don’t remember the same feeling of sheer hopefulness in 2007 as I do in 2017.
This version of the Epilogue in Elliott’s 2017 version is an example of how a production, and even a scene can change a whole take on a play. Personally, I’ve always had a rather macabre outlook. Asked about Rent (my other PhD text) and challenged on the ‘fairy-tale’ ending of it, I often reply ‘but Mimi’s a junkie with AIDS how long is she really going to last in the mid-80s.’ Harsh but, fair perhaps. I’ve always had a similarly grim outlook for Prior. Unlike my slightly dismissive attitude of Mimi (she gets on my nerves…oops) I do take a rather Motherly attitude towards Prior (call me Mother Pitt). But I always worried Kushner is giving us the glint of hope before reality snaps in. However, there is something so utterly hopeful in this production that is in a way utterly ineffable.  A great deal of which stems from the Epilogue- from the way the characters look, to their body language and interaction with each other and the staging of it in terms of what the audience is supposed to take away.
Firstly, costumes. I could write a book on these. Hannah and Prior are the only ones with actual descriptions of their appearance. Prior is described as ‘is heavily bundled, and he has thick glasses on and supports himself with a cane’ meanwhile Hannah Is noticeably different- she looks like a New Yorker and is reading The New York Times’ These two, have in the past five years, undergone the most radical changes, and it’s noted in their appearance. Hannah is dressed in a smart trench coat, black dress and smart black heels no longer the dowdier ‘Salt Lake City’ stylings of before, but sharp lines of an 80s New Yorker. Her overall demeanour shifts with the outfit- holding herself taller, asserting herself in the conversation with Belize and Louis.

Using some curtain call pictures as ones of the actual costumes are hard to find…
Belize meanwhile is as fabulous as ever. His signature bright colours remain, though perhaps a little toned down, a littler trendier rather than deliberately outlandish. In a similar checked coat to his earlier one- this one yellow rather than pink- and stonewash, 90s style jeans, along with his signature scarf- a plainer yellow and brown to match the coat. Belize is chic, fashionable and still fabulous. But perhaps a bit more grown up, a little less trying to scream a statement with his clothes, but still marking his personality. It’s a subtle shift in Belize, indicating he hasn’t changed quite as much. An indicator that Belize is our most ‘together’ of characters- he’s probably changed as we all do over 5 years but not substantially as Belize was already secure in himself, mature and sure of himself. His unchanged, only slightly updated, hip 90s wardrobe show Belize continues to simply be fabulous Belize.

Louis. Oh Louis. It’s subtle but he changes as much as Prior and Hannah. He has shoes on for a start. It might seem a minor detail, but five years later Louis is wearing smart dress shoes. Every other scene from work to his Grandmother’s funeral he’s worn the same battered trainers. He’s also wearing a smart coat, what’s more one that fits. As do his trousers and shirt. They’re also subtly colour coordinated- shades of dark blue. The last time we saw Louis he was wearing a grey T-shirt that didn’t quite fit properly and possibly also hadn’t been washed in several days. This is also the Louis who wore trainers to his Grandmother’s funeral. Now Louis I don’t want to sound like your Mother but is this a sign you finally learned to dress yourself or something more? Something more. Louis five years ago is a man very much at sea, even before Prior drops his bombshell Louis (and indeed Prior) isn’t a man with his life together. He’s an office temp, seems directionless, and we see that he’s still emotionally young struggles with life. His clothes reflect that- from the shabby overcoat that is too big, to scruffy trousers, untucked scruffy shirts and yes, those trainers. Now, from the things we have seen him go through, and whatever happens in the intervening five years, he looks like someone who is more together. From his more expensive looking clothes (his earlier outfits give mind to someone who either routinely buys second-hand or at least keeps clothes long after they’re worn out) indicates he probably has a ‘proper’ job now. He also cares about how he looks more perhaps- Louis before too caught up in anger at the world and politics, now thinks of himself more.
And Prior. We never really see Prior in ‘normal’ clothes. We see him in Pyjamas, hospital gowns, heavenly robes and his ‘Prophet’ outfit.  These serve a purpose other than simply clothes- even his funeral outfit at the start we can assume is chosen in part as a sort of armour- like the more extreme Prophet outfit later. Every day Prior is missing in all that. This feels like an evolved version of that. Well-tailored, smart and put together this is probably who Prior wanted to be all along before being derailed. Although Kushner suggests ‘bundled up’ it’s smart to simply put him in an overcoat and scarf- bundled up would make him look frail and this Prior isn’t frail. He’s put back together and fighting. His coat is smart, a timeless chequered herringbone design. He wears a woolly jumper in burgundy carefully coordinated with his winter scarf. Gone are the outlandish prints or over the top outfits, it’s stripped back clean and simple- again perhaps a marker of his wider attitude to life. His hair is tidied and styled for the first time really since the opening scene. His glasses, while an indicator of his still ailing sight, are stylish (of course). Prior feels put back together again in this outfit.
The Epilogue tells us a few vital things no matter how it’s staged- that Hannah stayed in New York, that she stayed friend with Prior and by default Louis and Belize. That Louis and Prior stayed friends, and that Belize is still friends with all of them. They’ve formed a strange urban family of sorts. We find Prior has been living with AIDS for 5 years (6 whole months longer than he lived with Louis) and intends to go on living more. There’s theories to have around what happened before and
The narrative of the Epilogue is useful, but it’s existence in terms of staging is more vital, particularly in this production. Firstly, Elliott directs both plays as one. There’s no real seam between Millennium and Perestroika, yes there is a shift in style, but this stems from the text and is a gradual build rather than an outright distinction. That build, which begins actually begins at the end of Millennium as Harper creates Antarctica in her mind, as the dense set of the first half strips back. Things remain stripped back, the Brechtian notes build until we reach ‘Heaven’. At which point everything is stripped back to the shell of the theatre. The Epilogue is the logical conclusion of this- when the last crack in the fourth wall falls. And it’s vital for the play to work to have Prior give the audience that moment- to turn it on them.
Elliott plays it well. The Heaven scene sets up the extended idea of the stage and auditorium as sharing the same space. And subtly she builds on this from the opening of the Epilogue. The house lights begin to get higher, gradually so it’s barely noticeable. But by the time Prior is addressing the audience, they are fully lit. But the realistic sounds of New York echo in the background. The room is at once Central Park and the Lyttleton again. It’s a vital moment of blurring lines and walls. There is also a moment of switch with the lights on the audience- we are vulnerable now. (I actually mentally cursed Elliott for this the first time as well) . After an entire day of seeing Prior at his most vulnerable, it’s us who are exposed- and with it compelled to follow his command.
Garfield shifts his performance too, I’ve written before about a theory of that moment in his performance bleeding both actor and performer- is it a bit of Prior an Garfield addressing us at that moment? Perhaps. And although he starts his monologue earlier in the scene with ‘Let’s turn the volume down on this’ that portion of Prior’s address is delivered as a monologue, within the world of the play. It’s at the final line of the first monologue ‘It’s January 1990’ that something switches in his delivery- he leans in a makes it clear to the audience it’s for them. His tone shift, like a lecturer romanticising on the play. He shares a nod a joke with the audience ‘I like them best when they’re statuary’. And then Prior/Garfield breaks the walls down for everyone else- until now, in the background in character. With his ‘Louis will tell you her story’ he breaks Louis out of that world and into the world he is addressing – our world. McArdle plays is well with a startled ‘Oh. Um’ and a look of realising the audience are suddenly there. With him Belize and Hannah seem to also blur the lines as well. The three of them stand somewhat awkwardly with Prior like children suddenly presented to meet a teacher as he concludes his speech.
There’s a sheer sense of joy to that final speech however, there’s no fear to Garfield’s Prior at this point. It’s celebratory. He’s made it this far, surrounded by friends and he plans to carry on. And his enthusiasm for it is infectious. He in this moment seems to feel invincible and that conveys to the audience. It’s possible for Prior to retain some fear at this point, frailty or wariness. None of that in him. It’s defiant, joyous but it is also very much an invocation to the audience. The Epilogue is the reason that I never leave Angels in tears-not this production anyway. I leave emotional, I leave ripped apart and put back together. I sob my way through Prior in Heaven, and through Harper’s monologue. But while the Epilogue is overwhelmingly emotional it’s also joyous. It’s full of hope and it puts the action of the play in our hands. And it is for me the most perfect ending to the play. ‘More Life’ indeed.
I get that for some people the Epilogue doesn’t work. That it might feel like reaching for things, forced tying up of loose ends. Or an odd theatrical device that isn’t needed. But for me that theatrical punctuation is exactly needed- Elliott shows this perfectly with this production. It’s precisely how the theatrical conclusion should be reached. And while theatrically it’s a perfect ending, in terms of character it doesn’t so much neatly tie up endings, but open many more questions. And that’s also why I love it.
‘You’ve got to have a theory’ Louis tells us.  And oh I have plenty. The second half of this post is about my theories, ideas and alright, outright fan-fiction about what it all means in the Epilogue in terms of character.
First the absent friends- Joe and Harper. Kushner has said that he tried to or attempted to write Joe’s story. But actually, like Joe I prefer it a little lost. Joe is the only one without a resolution, and that works because Joe at this point is without resolution. He probably spends some, if not many years ‘Lost’ as Harper instructs him-unintentionally so. There are probably a few more Louis’ in his future- men equally lost or damaged he falls in with. I feel Joe at this point is set on a self-destructive path of certainly more damaging relationships and sex, probably alcohol and maybe drugs.  He probably ends up infected with HIV despite all his protestations to Louis, more through a subconscious self-damaging streak. Does he speak to his Mother still? Probably not for a while, or at least in a strained manner. I like to think they eventually reconnect, and that in part Hannah’s staying in New York is in the hope of that. Does Joe eventually sort himself out? Yes, but I think he must go a long way down the rabbit hole for that to happen. There’s a lot of damage to undo and make sense of for Joe. 
Harper, finally free. Does she ever come back? Probably not. Does she stay in touch? In one way or another. Perhaps her ‘tantalising postcards’ come to Prior, much to the confusion of Belize and Louis, but to a knowing glance from Hannah. I think whatever cosmic link she has with Prior stays forever. The occasional vivid dream, drunken moment or simply daydream of vulnerability sees them connecting. If she does return to New York, it’s only Prior she sees- in the real world once again finally. But she’s happy wherever she is- like Hannah she starts again, and builds a life. It doesn’t matter we don’t know what she does because we know she’s going to be ok now.
And what of those we do see? Well Hannah has become a New Yorker. At some point realising Joe was probably lost to her for now (Unlike the film version where they have a momentary resolution, I see these two as torn apart for much of the foreseeable future). But having sold her house and had epiphany of a different kind at the hands of the Angel Hannah decides to stay. In my head, she does of course come back to visit Prior that same day, and the next, and the next. She possibly takes over from Belize taking care of him when he comes home, and probably never really stops- we see her in the Epilogue walking on arm in arm with him. Prior is easily affectionate with her and she accepts his kisses to her hands- she’s more at ease with physical contact than she ever was earlier in the play. What does Hannah do? I’d imagine she finds a quiet job somewhere- perhaps some kind of caring profession like a teaching assistant or something in a hospital. Or perhaps a little shop job. Either way she enjoys the independence. She’s still a Mormon-or at least still religious in some way, but not in a way that it dominates her life anymore. She’d volunteer-helping people. But more importantly she has her own life now- away from husband, the suffocating nature of Salt Lake and perhaps more regrettably from her son.
Belize? Well Belize is just doing what Belize does. He’s continuing to be fabulous in every way. Still fighting the good fight, and getting on with life. I kind of hope he gets a promotion at work (despite his slightly illegal activities with the drugs) and that he perhaps makes it more official with his ‘Man uptown’ in short I just hope he’s happy. And he’s Belize, he probably makes it happen.  And he’s still there at Prior’s side- their friendship has exceeded 10 years by this point (assuming they knew each other a year or two before Louis and Prior meet) and is the most enduring in Prior’s life (who doesn’t seem to have many friends). Oh and I think Belize goes back to Drag. Only in part to annoy Louis.
Louis, ah Louis. It’s tempting to think that everything that happened in the play is a kick up the arse and he changes overnight. But people don’t change like that, Louis certainly doesn’t. But everything that happens in the play I think puts him on the right path. He finally gets a job for a start- a proper one, not just a temp ‘word processor’. Louis is smart, we know that but he’s not found a use for the smarts he has. Politics is an obvious answer for Louis- a use for all the knowledge and ranting, but perhaps not. Perhaps an environment to encourage that side of him isn’t for the best. There’s a part of me that can see Louis as a teacher. The slightly off the wall history teacher who does a good side-line in politics. It also feels like a stable, calming influence for him. Whatever he discovers in those 5 years it stabilises him. He’s still Louis, but the venom is mostly gone from him. He’s not so much grown up as grown into himself.  
Prior, well firstly he gets well.  As well as he’s going to. The line ‘this is my life now’ in the scene before is so important- the element both of accepting his fate but also accepting his illness as part of him. Health wise it was no doubt a hard road from where Prior was at the end of the play to five years later, there would have been set backs and health scares and possibly another few close calls. But he’s lucky to have been the right side of drugs being developed and healthy enough for them to be of use. And five years later there he is. Health wise I always feared the worst for Prior- that his ‘I plan to be’ was too optimistic and in 1995 when Kushner was writing it may well have felt too optimistic for some. But that’s the beauty of revival- we can now see it wasn’t. There are plenty of Priors out there now- diagnosed in the late 80s and living their lives fully and healthily today.  And so I choose to say Prior was right- he sees that next Spring in the park, and the next and the next. More importantly it means Prior gets to live the life he hadn’t. His ‘I haven’t done anything yet’ is accurate- he’s living off a trust fund, being a club promoter in short indeed not doing a great deal. I think once he’s well again he changes that. Perhaps a bit of self-projection but I think he does something vaguely academic. I certainly think he goes back to school of some kind- uses his Trust Fund to support something different. I could see him doing something in religious studies and philosophy to finally unlock some of those Angel theories he has. Prior is intelligent, and I think whatever he does post-Angels is something that actually puts that intelligence to use. And he has a network now. He has Hannah, and Belize and I also think Nurse Emily stays in touch (and Harper somewhere out there). And perhaps Prior, who I see as a bit lonely before, makes friends through his AIDS diagnosis with others like him- in a strange way it is the making of him, and he endures.
And what of him and Louis? I’ve always loved that they stay friends, that to live through all that does bring you closer despite all of it. And that’s where I’ve always accepted it. But here’s the thing, when Prior in this production says ‘You can’t ever come back.’….I don’t believe him.
There’s still clearly something there between them- there’s some interesting body language in the Epilogue, particularly if you watch McArdle whenever Belize is near Prior. (one performance also saw an adorable, but also telling ‘play slapping’ between him and Belize). But there’s also simply the way his Louis looks at Prior still.  Louis’ feelings seem not to have changed- there’s a lovely line in puppy-dog glances and possessive body language McArdle gives us in the Epilogue. But there’s something there from Garfield as well, an easy charm with ‘his’ Louis that may just be a Prior now happy in his skin, his ‘family’ and one of his now oldest friends (going on 10 years at the time of the Epilogue).  There’s a 100 way to interpret their relationship and where it may have gone. But if I were writing the ‘fan fiction’ of this (which let’s face it that’s what I’m doing here) this is what I’d say…
Louis and Prior do stay friends. Louis is initially devastated by the fact that Prior says he can’t come back and that’s when the break up really hits him. But he’s determined to show Prior he has changed, so he puts on a front, and is there for Prior while he’s recovering. He doesn’t run away even though he’s now hurting at being rejected-he understands now that he deserves it and why. But when he says he still loves Prior it’s true, both in terms of romantic and platonic love. So he’s there for him this time.  At that point Prior really couldn’t take Louis back- he’s focused on recovering, on dealing with his diagnosis now. But they do slowly go back to being friends and in fact are closer than before (probably initially much to Belize’s disgust). And Louis is good and loyal because underneath- he is. And as time passes they end up in this comfortable, incredibly close friendship that sometimes exes do indeed manage.
Prior doesn’t date anyone else. And this is what would set suspicions alight. He is adamant it’s to focus on his health, and later putting his life back together. And there’s probably some element of not being able to move forward into a relationship, yes, some damage that Louis did but also that he and Louis seem to have this inextricable connection. Louis does date, but not seriously. Prior berates his choices with an withering amusement that none of them will be serious and none of them will last- and he’s right. And it is of course Prior he comes running to every time it goes wrong. Meanwhile Belize, all seeing all knowing suspects Prior still holds feelings for Louis and knows full well Louis always will for Prior. And he’s protective as ever, but he (perhaps with a word from Hannah) knows that Louis has grown up, and indeed that Prior knows his own mind (or will eventually when they figure it out and admit it all).
So where are they five years later? It feels like they’re drawing closer again. Perhaps there’s been a few slips into something more than friends when they’re alone. Perhaps not yet, perhaps each is trying to work up the nerve to admit things to themselves or each other. But there’s still something there, and the timing is starting to feel right. My instinct is that they haven’t actually got back together at this point, but they’re very much on the verge of it. Five years also feels like a suitable watershed and a suitable moment of ‘If it hasn’t’ gone away now it never will. And if you’re still here you still will be’ Prior and Louis have known each other nearing 10 years now, and Prior ‘not ever’ is a really long time…and I still don’t believe you.  

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Still waving research in the air (Project book month 2)

This picture continues to be the visual representation of Project Book. Me in two day old clothes raving at people who don’t want to listen (you dear, reader mainly)

Another ‘research update’ that’s more about the state of things than the plays…having abandoned my former PhD blog this seems the place to dump such thoughts.

The last couple of weeks have been hard. The ongoing job situation (or lack of one) and the bigger questions about what I’m doing and why continue to hang over me.

A week or so ago someone told me (in not so many words) that I ‘Might as well give up.’ and that basically very few people ‘make it’ anyway and I’d probably be better off giving up. This was offset a couple of days later by someone else telling me, absolutely not to give up and that I had a talent for a lot of the things I’m trying to do.

So which one to believe? I’m always inclined to quote not Kushner for a change but Pretty Woman ‘The bad stuff is easier to believe’. But I also think person number 1 misinterprets my aims, ambitions. I don’t have the arrogance to believe I’ll be a ‘famous writer’ hell I don’t even believe I’d make a living off it in the sense of it ever being a full time job. What I aspire to in a realistic sense is a job that pays the bills and is intellectually at least somewhat satisfying. Alongside that I’ll continue to do the other things; mainly write.

Right now in the broader sense I feel crushed under the pressure of it all. I can’t be working on everything at once. When life throws you at a crossroads unexpectedly (thanks job for ending early) the pressure to do all the things to make a change becomes immense. When all the options are opened suddenly, the weight of uncertainty and possibility becomes paralyzing. But unfortunately on top of all that, I still have to earn money. So possibly is also entirely limited.

All of this (somehow) brings me back to the Angels book. I’m juggling a lot right now- the debate between just getting another job ‘for now’ versus chasing ‘real career’ stuff. I have two, maybe more other creative projects on the go which also need attention, which could also lead to things. A lot of could out there. But my second person in that list also told me that I ‘had to’ write the Angels book. We talked a lot and it became clear from the outside, and from me that this should be a priority. And it should, it really should. But it’s also proving to be the biggest challenge.

If I’m honest I think what I should be doing right now is working an untaxing job for the money, and writing this book around it. It’s the time to do it, the time will never be this right again (or if it is I’ll have to wait another 10 years). If I don’t do it now, the truth is I probably never will. And again, honestly if I think what my regrets will be in 5, 10, 20 years it will be ‘I never wrote the book.’ Much like perusing my PhD in the first place, it’s the one thing I feel I need to do.

I’ve spent 10 years now working on this play, I fought every step of the way- to get someone to take on the PhD, to get through it, to be a part of the National Theatre’s production. I remember crying about the decision around pursing a job far away versus hanging around for Angels. I chose Angels and in the long an short term I’m still convinced it was right. Even if right now it all feels like a stupid set of decisions. I sacrificed a lot along the road, partly because that’s a PhD, but what’s more I poured my heart and soul into this play for 10 years. I fought so hard because I believe in the work, like nothing else I’ve done in life.  None of it came easy, and all of it comes from a love for the work a desire to share it, to discuss and dissect it. And to keep a conversation going on this important play. I’m not writing this book for career advancement (though I’m sure it won’t hurt) I’m writing it because I have to. I’m writing it because I do think nobody can write it quite like me.

But I panic. Is this all a waste of time? if I take another ‘for now’ job with the idea that I work on the book in my spare time…and it’s all for nothing. I find myself in another year, with nothing to show.  I’ve already wasted so much of my life on the PhD on this play that it’s perhaps time to give it all up. Put it away and chalk it up to experience. I had a great summer with the new production, but perhaps that’s all I get and I should move on, get myself another admin job and forget it all. Or I could say I’ve come this far, give it another go. But if another year down the line, another stuck in a day job I hate and nothing more so show for it, what then?

On one hand I look around me at academics and think ‘why do all of you manage to publish your PhD and I don’t?’ it’s probably a marker of again my failed academic status. I know I’m not good enough. But I know the work is good enough. I know it’s work worth publishing. With the greatest respect to all academics out there every day I see books published that are far more niche interest than my own would be. So surely, surely there’s a place for me? But it makes you lose perspective. In the academic world everyone has a book, it’s taken as given. But in the real world it’s seen as an amazing accomplishment. Academia skews your reality yet again. But ultimately there’s no place for me or the book in academia and it makes me cry with frustration. 

And there’s also the elephant in the room. The ‘Other Book’ being published early next year on Angels. It’s hard to write about because I respect the authors behind it greatly, I participated in it, and I’m really glad it exists. It’s a great work, (pardon the pun) that will be immensely useful, interesting and worth having in the world. But I have to be honest, right now it’s existence breaks my heart. I spent 10 years working on this play all told. I fought every step of the way. And it seems more and more likely, this book means the likelihood of my own is diminishing. And that’s life, that’s the industry, and that’s my own sheer bad luck. But it doesn’t mean I’m not crying about it all (again) as I type this.

But put all that aside, and the other thing is I love writing this book. In the moments I get to just sit and write or research away from the crippling panic about publishing it I’ve not been this happy in anything I’ve done in years. I wasn’t this happy doing the PhD because everything I was doing was being changed, directed, altered. Here I am just writing the story of the play I always wanted to tell (obviously a mythical editor will change that, I’m not naive but for now…). I’ve been writing about elements of the play I never got to visit before, and revisiting things I love to think and write about. And there’ a whole new production to explore and unpick and unravel. And there’s excitement and magic in that. This is a thing I know, but it’s also a thing I love. The other weekend I spent a couple of the happiest hours I’d had in months talking to Mateo Oxley (who understudied Andrew Garfield) about all things Angels. I can’t quite put into words how exciting and inspiring it was to spend time not only fully immersed in the research again but to speak with someone who shared my passion (and level of nerdiness for it). It made me feel for a bit that I wasn’t wasting my time.Talking this research with someone who’d actually been a part of the production, feeling their enthusiasm for what I am trying to do..makes me feel there’s something there.  And that’s what this summer, and interest not only in the play but in the way I talk and write about it did- made me think I have something to say. And it  made me love it again.

Part of me thinks that should be enough. That I just throw it all up on here or somewhere for people to read and be done with it. But then if we’re talking about ambitions, about ‘making it’. If I could publish this book. If I could feel I’d put all that I’d poured these 10 years, sacrifices and frankly insanity into. If I could feel I made something out of all that, that would be enough. It’s at once a big ambition and a small one. It’s small in that it’s all I want- I don’t aspire to it leading to anything grander. But it’s huge in that it’s a mountain to climb to get there.

And so what now? Honestly I don’t know. I feel I’ve already run out of options. Academic publishers don’t want it. Though I still have a couple of options to follow up. Neither does anyone else. I’m still writing, I’m not rushing. I want it done right, not quick. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be Louis at the top of this blog; shouting about things nobody cares about until someone listens (Hey there’s an Epilogue theory, maybe Louis wrote a poorly received book on a topic nobody cared about anymore…)

This has mainly been a lot of my venting/crying onto a page, but that’s where I’m at right now. I promise a post that includes a LOT of nerdy costume references to make up for it. In the meantime have a picture of James McArdle, that always cheers me up:

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Still waving research in the air (Project book month 2)

This picture continues to be the visual representation of Project Book. Me in two day old clothes raving at people who don’t want to listen (you dear, reader mainly)

Another ‘research update’ that’s more about the state of things than the plays…having abandoned my former PhD blog this seems the place to dump such thoughts.

The last couple of weeks have been hard. The ongoing job situation (or lack of one) and the bigger questions about what I’m doing and why continue to hang over me.

A week or so ago someone told me (in not so many words) that I ‘Might as well give up.’ and that basically very few people ‘make it’ anyway and I’d probably be better off giving up. This was offset a couple of days later by someone else telling me, absolutely not to give up and that I had a talent for a lot of the things I’m trying to do.

So which one to believe? I’m always inclined to quote not Kushner for a change but Pretty Woman ‘The bad stuff is easier to believe’. But I also think person number 1 misinterprets my aims, ambitions. I don’t have the arrogance to believe I’ll be a ‘famous writer’ hell I don’t even believe I’d make a living off it in the sense of it ever being a full time job. What I aspire to in a realistic sense is a job that pays the bills and is intellectually at least somewhat satisfying. Alongside that I’ll continue to do the other things; mainly write.

Right now in the broader sense I feel crushed under the pressure of it all. I can’t be working on everything at once. When life throws you at a crossroads unexpectedly (thanks job for ending early) the pressure to do all the things to make a change becomes immense. When all the options are opened suddenly, the weight of uncertainty and possibility becomes paralyzing. But unfortunately on top of all that, I still have to earn money. So possibly is also entirely limited.

All of this (somehow) brings me back to the Angels book. I’m juggling a lot right now- the debate between just getting another job ‘for now’ versus chasing ‘real career’ stuff. I have two, maybe more other creative projects on the go which also need attention, which could also lead to things. A lot of could out there. But my second person in that list also told me that I ‘had to’ write the Angels book. We talked a lot and it became clear from the outside, and from me that this should be a priority. And it should, it really should. But it’s also proving to be the biggest challenge.

If I’m honest I think what I should be doing right now is working an untaxing job for the money, and writing this book around it. It’s the time to do it, the time will never be this right again (or if it is I’ll have to wait another 10 years). If I don’t do it now, the truth is I probably never will. And again, honestly if I think what my regrets will be in 5, 10, 20 years it will be ‘I never wrote the book.’ Much like perusing my PhD in the first place, it’s the one thing I feel I need to do.

I’ve spent 10 years now working on this play, I fought every step of the way- to get someone to take on the PhD, to get through it, to be a part of the National Theatre’s production. I remember crying about the decision around pursing a job far away versus hanging around for Angels. I chose Angels and in the long an short term I’m still convinced it was right. Even if right now it all feels like a stupid set of decisions. I sacrificed a lot along the road, partly because that’s a PhD, but what’s more I poured my heart and soul into this play for 10 years. I fought so hard because I believe in the work, like nothing else I’ve done in life.  None of it came easy, and all of it comes from a love for the work a desire to share it, to discuss and dissect it. And to keep a conversation going on this important play. I’m not writing this book for career advancement (though I’m sure it won’t hurt) I’m writing it because I have to. I’m writing it because I do think nobody can write it quite like me.

But I panic. Is this all a waste of time? if I take another ‘for now’ job with the idea that I work on the book in my spare time…and it’s all for nothing. I find myself in another year, with nothing to show.  I’ve already wasted so much of my life on the PhD on this play that it’s perhaps time to give it all up. Put it away and chalk it up to experience. I had a great summer with the new production, but perhaps that’s all I get and I should move on, get myself another admin job and forget it all. Or I could say I’ve come this far, give it another go. But if another year down the line, another stuck in a day job I hate and nothing more so show for it, what then?

On one hand I look around me at academics and think ‘why do all of you manage to publish your PhD and I don’t?’ it’s probably a marker of again my failed academic status. I know I’m not good enough. But I know the work is good enough. I know it’s work worth publishing. With the greatest respect to all academics out there every day I see books published that are far more niche interest than my own would be. So surely, surely there’s a place for me? But it makes you lose perspective. In the academic world everyone has a book, it’s taken as given. But in the real world it’s seen as an amazing accomplishment. Academia skews your reality yet again. But ultimately there’s no place for me or the book in academia and it makes me cry with frustration. 

And there’s also the elephant in the room. The ‘Other Book’ being published early next year on Angels. It’s hard to write about because I respect the authors behind it greatly, I participated in it, and I’m really glad it exists. It’s a great work, (pardon the pun) that will be immensely useful, interesting and worth having in the world. But I have to be honest, right now it’s existence breaks my heart. I spent 10 years working on this play all told. I fought every step of the way. And it seems more and more likely, this book means the likelihood of my own is diminishing. And that’s life, that’s the industry, and that’s my own sheer bad luck. But it doesn’t mean I’m not crying about it all (again) as I type this.

But put all that aside, and the other thing is I love writing this book. In the moments I get to just sit and write or research away from the crippling panic about publishing it I’ve not been this happy in anything I’ve done in years. I wasn’t this happy doing the PhD because everything I was doing was being changed, directed, altered. Here I am just writing the story of the play I always wanted to tell (obviously a mythical editor will change that, I’m not naive but for now…). I’ve been writing about elements of the play I never got to visit before, and revisiting things I love to think and write about. And there’ a whole new production to explore and unpick and unravel. And there’s excitement and magic in that. This is a thing I know, but it’s also a thing I love. The other weekend I spent a couple of the happiest hours I’d had in months talking to Mateo Oxley (who understudied Andrew Garfield) about all things Angels. I can’t quite put into words how exciting and inspiring it was to spend time not only fully immersed in the research again but to speak with someone who shared my passion (and level of nerdiness for it). It made me feel for a bit that I wasn’t wasting my time.Talking this research with someone who’d actually been a part of the production, feeling their enthusiasm for what I am trying to do..makes me feel there’s something there.  And that’s what this summer, and interest not only in the play but in the way I talk and write about it did- made me think I have something to say. And it  made me love it again.

Part of me thinks that should be enough. That I just throw it all up on here or somewhere for people to read and be done with it. But then if we’re talking about ambitions, about ‘making it’. If I could publish this book. If I could feel I’d put all that I’d poured these 10 years, sacrifices and frankly insanity into. If I could feel I made something out of all that, that would be enough. It’s at once a big ambition and a small one. It’s small in that it’s all I want- I don’t aspire to it leading to anything grander. But it’s huge in that it’s a mountain to climb to get there.

And so what now? Honestly I don’t know. I feel I’ve already run out of options. Academic publishers don’t want it. Though I still have a couple of options to follow up. Neither does anyone else. I’m still writing, I’m not rushing. I want it done right, not quick. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be Louis at the top of this blog; shouting about things nobody cares about until someone listens (Hey there’s an Epilogue theory, maybe Louis wrote a poorly received book on a topic nobody cared about anymore…)

This has mainly been a lot of my venting/crying onto a page, but that’s where I’m at right now. I promise a post that includes a LOT of nerdy costume references to make up for it. In the meantime have a picture of James McArdle, that always cheers me up:

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Holding the Man (some thoughts, not a review)

This isn’t a ‘review’ because I saw this too close to the end of the run, but some plays make you want to put pen to paper regardless. It’s also not a review, as this is filled with the kind of personal anecdotal nonsense that people tell me doesn’t belong in my blog.

Well screw that, this is my blog, and for this one I’m writing it how I’d like.

A little background. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I wrote my PhD in what essentially translates to ‘Plays about AIDS’. There’s a far more sophisticated description. But for the purposes of today, that about covers it. For anyone who wants more of that nonsense, my side blog is here

I started my PhD in September 2010. In June 2010 (June 21st, I looked it up. Yes I keep a list) I saw ‘Holding the Man’ for the first time. I actually had no idea what it was about going in, I was actually just a bit obsessed with Simon Burke at the time so booked to see him (what of it?). And so by accident as a little pre-term treat to myself I booked the ‘Australian AIDS play’. I loved it. I laughed. I cried. It became one of my favourite plays of the ‘genre’ (for want of a better word) that I was studying. I read the play and the book over and over during my PhD. Both became a sort of ‘retreat’ from the other work I was doing. They became along with a few other things- the writings of Tim Miller for one, a place to be reminded about why I was doing what I was doing. I was never allowed to write about the play in my research. The narrow minded view of my PhD supervisors had no place for British plays, let alone Australian ones. (But she also had no place for War Horse, so she’s basically dead inside).

So now, two years out of the PhD, and in a new kind of research hell (hello book attempts) it felt like a great time to revisit this play. And the team at Above the Stag have done a wonderful job. It’s the perfect kind of venue, and perfect team for this play, the intimate setting really lets the actors hit home the powerful story. And the minimal (but visually stunning) backdrop lets the story shine through.

Holding the Man begins as a story about two young men in school, discovering their sexuality and each other. Based on Timothy Conigrave’s memoir of the same name, about him and his love John Caleo. The title is a great play on a term from Aussie Rules Football, which John plays in school and college- it’s an offence that incurs penalty. In Conigrave/Murphy’s writing of the story, the penalty for ‘Holding the Man’ ends up being severe indeed.

The actors playing Tim (Jamie Barnard) and John (Ben Boskovic) have the added challenge of playing the boys from early teens up to their 30s. And both take us from wide eyed teenage innocence through struggles in their 20s, through to the anguish that comes with their AIDS diagnosis. Barnard as Tim narrates the story, addressing the audience sporadically throughout the play, and his easy charm draws the audience in. There’s a great chemistry with Boskovic, who plays the at first hesitant John with an endearing charm. Both actors are funny and charming an make you fall in love with them, and their relationship. The first half of the play is funny and sweet as they discover each other at school, fall for each other and then struggle with life outside their high school bubble. Both play the conflict with a real honesty that cuts to the heart of how first love can be both intoxicating and soul destroying.

Around Barnard and Boskovic are a brilliant ensemble who create the rest of Tim and John’s world. The structure of Murphy’s play is beautifully theatrical, with actors doubling across multiple roles as friends, parents and other lovers. This adds some fantastic moments of comedy with Robert Thompson and Annabel Pemberton in particular offering some hilarious moments as supporting characters. As the set- David Shields’ beautiful neon backdrops, combined with a series of function black panels and boxes, allows the story to move from year to year, and city to city, the backdrop of characters form Tim and John’s life in the 80s and early 90s.

Of course life takes a darker turn. We start hearing about AIDS before the characters encounter it. But ultimately we see their diagnosis. Murphy’s script cleverly takes us away from the logistics of medical elements- though these are there- and keeps things firmly rooted in the emotional, psychological elements that surround that diagnosis. The mysteries of the late 80s and all the questions sill unanswerable, all the ones nobody wanted to know in a way-who infected who and when. There are some wonderful moments of staging and dramatic writing around this. When Tim hears elements of his play, inter-cut with his own medical diagnosis is a hard hitting but beautiful way to convey the feelings of confusion, and the very real medical impact he was suffering. The play-within-a-play is a nice reference to the use of theatre as a response, and a nod to the more ‘worthy’ plays that often sprang up.

Ultimately this play rests on the central performances of Barnard and Boskovic. And as the play moves towards it’s inevitable conclusion, both of them deliver. Boskovic in particular shines in the scene where he confesses what he wished he’d done in life. The sense of quiet resignation and regret is heartbreaking to watch. And Barnard gets the tough job of delivering Tim’s final monologue directly after John dies. The final words ‘A gift to John. The End.’ he delivers with such sweetness and vulnerability, that I defy anyone in the audience to hold it together at that point.

And yes for me, Holding the Man proved a highly emotional, but also cathartic experience. Having spent the summer with ‘the other AIDS play’ one I have a complex emotional relationship with, and that moves and affects me in different ways. The outright emotional impact of Holding the Man is actually really refreshing. And that has in part always been the appeal of this play. For me Holding the Man, the play and Timothy Conigrave’s original book, were a refreshing voice in the predominantly American dialogue on HIV/AIDS. Britain has a few voices in this- the equally refreshing and incredibly British ‘My Night With Reg’ springs to mind as a comparable example. What I loved about Holding the Man was the refreshing humour of the piece. Not just in the early scenes when ‘everything is fine’ but right to the end, a darker humour admittedly but still there. It’s not holier than thou. It even makes a slight wink at the more ‘worthy’ AIDS plays within the narrative. but also it’s an AIDS play that isn’t just an AIDS play. Really it’s a coming-of-age story, albeit one with a really tragic ending.

But what Holding the Man does so well is give over to simplicity. It’s important that we had the political plays, the ones that shouted at the leaders failing to lead. But ultimately, what they were shouting about was people. Holding the Man gives us that powerful, personal story, and it’s one that will still break your heart. And I think in all the noise, in all the career panic, in the publish the book anguish, once again I’d lost sight of some of the reasons I’d been doing what I’d been doing. And in a weekend where I saw one of the ‘hot tickets’ in the West End that left me cold and bored (and my arse numb) it was so refreshing to see a company that clearly put its heart and soul into a ply.

I’m glad I came back to this play. It has a way of finding me when I needed it. Back in 2010 it spurred me on gave me something at first new to inspire me, and then a fall back to remind me of what drove me. In 2017, this wonderful cast in the tiny theatre under the arches gave me that again. I had a damn good cry, left the theatre and picked myself back up again. Because there’s something really inspiring about Conigrave’s story. That fight right to the end, the book as a gift to John, and the legacy that lives on.

One detail I left out. This whole PhD madness started in a way, with Hugh Jackman in ‘The Boy from Oz’. From that musical I started reading around plays about HIV/AIDS. And it led me all this way. In Act 1, this production used Peter Allen’s music. I’m not one to believe in signs usually, but maybe somewhere someone is telling me keep going.

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

The idea of music existing “between the notes” seems to be the best description of Heisenberg. A bit like the principle from which it takes it’s name, that you cannot view a thing and observe it’s momentum at once. The music analogy is more romantic though. And there is romance to Stephens’ script. Even if it is not the traditional kind.

The script itself feels a bit like a science experiment- a viewing of distinct, choice moments in a relationship history. Again with gaps, unobserved, unknown where we cannot be certain where our particles- Georgie and Alex- are in those moments. Neither can we quite be sure where they are heading at any given moment we do observe them. Science analogies aside, seeing only snapshots of a relationship, watching it evolve in abstract is both charming and engaging. It feels like a series of dates for the audience, and it draws us in wondering about the next moment as well as the ones missed in between. It’s a fast-paced, contemporary feeling way to catch up with an unusual relationship drama.

The plot follows Georgie and Alex- she a 42 year old woman, he a 72 year old man as she kisses him on the neck in a station, through to New Jersey, a hunt for her son and a complex at times questionable relationship. They move through bafflement (mostly his) to flirtation (hers initially but he soon joins in) to deception (possibly, her or possibly incredibly frank honesty), to recrimination and reconciliation. It’s a fast paced perpetual motion that means- to continue the metaphor- you couldn’t pin down where anyone is exactly if you tried.

The pace is pulled along by Elliott’s direction. It’s slick and stylish to look at but there’s weight to the pacing and movement that accompanies it. The actors power on at a pace, moving from scene to scene, but there are moments of real air there, and points they and the story gets to breathe and take in the moments of human reflection the script has-sometimes slightly hidden. It’s a play that could be done with a bare stage and a table (as indeed the 2016 Broadway production did) but theatre is a visual medium as well and the stylish light-box staging and Contemporary-Dance influenced movement transitions help flesh out the world of snapshots Stephens has written. In the transitions- slick and aesthetically pleasing as they are- we get hints of the moments of transition in between scenes as well. None of it exactly clear, which is how it should be, but all of it building a picture. The set itself- brilliantly realised by Bunny Christie- creates a backdrop that’s at once white and sterile and indeed scientific, but also filled with light and movement. Paul Constable’s lighting design compliments it perfectly creating a rich but abstract backdrop for the couple’s stories to be told against.

The stories themselves are told with expert precision by Ann-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. The acting masterclass you might expect there’s a visible chemistry between them that allays any reservations about the unusual relationship the characters have. Duff is a powerhouse of chatter and energy, but also pulls it back to quiet reflection when needed. You feel the vulnerability beneath- whether it’s a moment her mask of chatter drops and a quieter exchange takes it’s place, or her physical interactions with Cranham, Duff understands the nuances between Georgie’s ‘Exhausting or exhilarating’ persona. Cranaham gives his gruff butcher Alex a sweetness alongside world-weariness and slight world-wariness. It’s a charming performance, really pulled together by the moments of reflection and sadness when he alludes to his loneliness often with an air of steadfast resignation. There is a neat balance as well as chemistry between the two performances that truly lift this play up.

Heisenberg is an interesting reflection on the nature of relationships, and the oddities of human life. Do you question their plausibility? judge their actions and words to each other? Yes. But so we do the ‘real’ couples we know and observe. And that was key in Heiseberg- it’s an observation of a relationship, a set of moments captured that are fascinating to watch. It’s not a play asking for a scientific conclusion, more one recording it’s set of observations for future reference. And human relationships-particularly of the romantic kind- never run short of things to study. And as the principle itself suggests, we can never see all things at once. The snapshots Stephens gives us, and the world Elliott creates lets us also imagine what goes on ‘between the notes’.

It’s a brave and bold first outing for Elliott Harper- a ‘small’ in scale play on a big stage in every sense. But bringing with it a solid play, in a safe pair of hands to perform it makes it a strong  first statement. Theatre doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel every time, and this production gives us good theatre- interesting stories, well performed with slick interesting direction. I wrote previously on my excitement at Elliott Harper’s arrival in the West End (here) and this production has firmly cemented that excitement.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at the Wyndams Theatre until January 6th 2018
https://elliottandharper.com/production/heisenberg/

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The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough

The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough 
****
It’s a rare play that gets both into your head and under your skin. Watching The Busy World is Hushed sends both a mind reeling trying to keep up with the ideas and questions posed by the characters, but also cuts to the heart with some frank, honest reflections on grief and love.
Keith Bunin’s play manages to weave ‘academic’ ideas of life and love with the reality in a way that’s both intellectually rigorous and emotionally engaging. He puts Hannah (Kazia Pelka) at the centre of this; an Episcopalian Minister in Manhattan and an academic she is professionally wrestling with issues of God and associated ideas of good, bad and love. While in the background to her professional life she has spent half a lifetime wrestling personally with reconciling the loss of her husband before her Son was born. It’s a rare complex part for a ‘Mother’ role in a play, and Pelka plays the nuances and conflicts of Hannah well. As the play picks up as her son Thomas reaches the age his father was when he died, and Mother and Son confront their own respective ways of dealing with the path in life that set them on.
There is a real sense of the lens of academic analysis in Bunin’s play, and it is the focus on her work and events around it that throws Hannah’s personal life into equal academic scrutiny. She hires young writer Brandt to Ghostwrite her thesis on the Gospels. A neat narrative nod to the writing of the Bible itself and the theories of ‘authorship’ Hannah may or may not be trying to prove. This metaphor is also played out in that Thomas is piecing together his Father’s life through stories and artefacts left behind. And neither she nor Thomas can arrive at any conclusion in their ‘academic’ or personal life respectively. The plays leaves the sense of faith in the intellectual and personal sense must often go unproven and unresolved.

The intrusion of Brandt (Mateo Oxley) into their world continues Bunin’s drawing out of the spiritual, academic and personal intertwining. Brought in despite being ‘not qualified’ for the job, he is to work at the heart of Hannah’s spiritual work, but also finds himself at the centre of her personal world working from her living room ‘library’. Oxley at first plays a charming and slightly lost ‘soul’ to Hannah but one with real steel to challenge her intellectually. Their debates on religion give Oxley and Pelka some great material to spar with and fuels the characterisation of ‘intellect’ and ‘heart’ that shapes the narrative and the characters.
The intimacy of the Finborough and the beautiful design that Marco Turcich has created work well for this. The audience feels like they are sharing Hannah’s flat with the characters, and there is a real urge during the interval to rummage through the piles of books to try and discover something like Thomas is in the play.

With Brandt in their world, Hannah and Thomas are challenged in different ways, and manage to challenge Brandt in return. A professional and personal challenge to Hannah’s ideas, forcing her to debate the issues she is including in her book. She sees his lack of Faith not so much as a religious but intellectual challenge. Bunin weaves these questions so well with the personal arc of the characters in his play makes for a series of intellectual questions about life and what lays beyond that feel incredibly natural in the world of the play, giving us things to think of beyond. Meanwhile his relationship with Thomas feels like a natural evolution, and a reflection of their respective emotional states- the lovely moment where Thomas ruffles Brandt’s hair in Act 1 seems to transition seamlessly into the nature of their new relationship in Act 2, and both actors play that transition, and one towards the conflict in their relationship in an easy, natural manner. 
The relationship might within the plot be contrived a little by Hannah, but both Oxley and Michael James (Thomas) have found the heart of the real affection between the two in the play. To find a play also in which a gay relationship is at the heart, but the play nor the conflict is about them being gay is a rare gift. Although there are allusions to earlier conflicts with coming out or promiscuity, the issue of them being Gay is neither debated or conflict in the play or their relationship. The conflict simply comes from being emotionally equipped for the relationship, and all the things that come between anyone in seeking love, rather than sexuality. It shouldn’t be underplayed how significant this is, and how heartening to see a Gay relationship treated both normal, and not the source of a character’s conflict or downfall. Oxley and James play the dynamic beautifully, and there is a great ease and chemistry between them that draws the audience into their relationship, rooting for them and hearts breaking for them when things unravel.
The heart of things is a good way to describe the way the play goes far beyond these intellectual questions to an emotional yet honest core. We see Thomas, the young man lost in life, trying to figure out an identity that he’s hanging off an absent father. Meanwhile Hannah struggles to reconcile herself as a Mother, a Minister and as a woman. There is a sense of her losing much of the latter, having thrown herself into her work and her son for so many years. Her talks with Brandt seem to bring out a personality she’s long kept partially hidden, but when he challenges her there seems to be a light returning. Meanwhile Brandt thrown into this world, while struggling with an unseen world of his own. Watching his Father die from a brain tumour, and bearing the responsibility of an only child, he is struggling with a moment of ‘growing up’ in his late 20s. His relationship with Thomas reflects an earlier decision that he wants to move past throwaway relationships to something real. Brandt reflects the often-over-looked struggle of just getting through your 20s.  Brandt is a character caught between many worlds- he’s a writer who is writing for someone else, he’s an adult but at that point where he’s not quite feeling ‘grown up’, he’s a child losing a Father while also forced to be a carer and a man who longs for commitment but feels life keeps preventing him from committing. And while the central story is about Hannah and her son on the surface it’s Brandt that raises the questions and gets to the heart of the piece.   
It’s a deftly handled three hander and all the actors do some extraordinary and heavy work. Kazia Pelka gives a strong grounded performance as Hannah. There’s a spark and strength to her performance, and she delivers lines with wit and sharpness that give us a real sense of a woman strong because she has to be. Her Hannah is intelligent in an intellectual and emotional way, but she also offers a vulnerability without weakness. It’s a performance that could be overlooked, as it is understated, but she brings a real strength that anchors the play on her performance.  Michael James gives a whirlwind performance as Thomas, capturing the frustrated energy of the character that is fuelled by a long-seated grief. He’s also funny and charming pulling the audience immediately on side. Thomas’ attitude or actions might read as unsympathetic in the hands of another but instead he remains affable, charming and ultimately a character your heart breaks for rather than resenting. Alongside the Mother/Son relationship Mateo Oxley is doing incredible, emotional but intelligent work in a role that in the hands of a lesser actor might become overblown or contrived. There’s a real sense of Oxley getting to the heart and head of Brandt- which is also the centre of what Bunin has written. Oxley gives us a character who retreats to his head to avoid his heart, but in fact in doing so his heart shines through. There’s a wonderful pacing that Oxley gives to the character- he gives us energy in debate, humour even in his sparring with both Thomas and Hannah. But bubbling under is a quiet grief that spills over only occasionally, and oh so subtly that it’s incredibly powerful. He’s an actor with such control, and a clear thought and intelligence behind the character that is both engaging and devastatingly moving to watch.
This is a play that raises complex issues, and doesn’t attempt to resolve them- and there lies its real strength. It’s dialogue heavy, but in a way, that feels authentic. And Director Paul Higgins handles this deftly, making sure none of the moments feel forced or artificial. We get a lot of talk around life, and beyond because that’s what the character’s need. But Higgins is careful to leave space in between, and pace all this so the audience can breathe.

The play ultimately is a reflection on death and grief and how the living incorporates that into their lives. In looking at three different experiences, and showing they are all current no matter how long ago- or how far in the future death and grief for it are, the play gives an airing to an often-avoided subject. Every audience member will likely find their own personal moment of alignment with the three character’s experiences, and that makes it a difficult watch at times. And while they play never gives us complete resolution there’s a catharsis in hearing those feelings shared, and value in the questions asked.  
As a final personal note as an academic currently struggling with the act of writing a book, I clearly identified with elements of that narrative. Not least the personal anguish, and investment that calls for, it proved for an unusual evening to see that played out. To see that done with an actor I was about to interview for said book was…an amusing added extra. Add to that a couple of shared jokes about Angels going on and…proof positive we all bring our own personal experiences to the theatre with us.

Until 25th November, Finborough Theatre

Tickets and information Here

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Cast Notes: Andrew Garfield- Prior

And finally, after much ado, notes on Andrew Garfield as Prior…

Garfield was the performer I saw evolve most across the run. Although some might critique this, thinking he should have been ‘set’ as Prior by opening night, it’s testament to an actor still working, still discovering. For an actor who has worked predominantly on film as well, it seems precisely the point of taking on a theatre role- to have something continuously evolving to work with. This also sums up his approach (as I observed it) as an actor who was ‘living’ or ‘experiencing’ the whole thing every night, and as a technique for Prior that’s hard, but something that can really pay off. His Prior grew as he as an actor grew into the role. That was, as Kushner might say realising a bit of theatrical magic happening right there. Emotionally played to the core, from up close an often-painful watch as he goes through not just the physical trials but faces Prior’s emotional challenges (and a few angels). It’s emotional, granted often loud, anguished and at times outlandish (drag can be a drag after all) but it’s always honest to the character, and serves the play not the actor.
There’s been two main critiques of Garfield’s Prior, basically of the same element but one internal to the performance and one external. The external relates to both the fact that he is a straight man playing the role, and from some out of context comments about his preparation for the role. I do understand that many gay men feel strongly that such an iconic ‘gay’ role should have been played by a gay man, and that there is a level of experience and understanding associated with that. I understand that stance, personally I would disagree. I understand the idea that gay men will have particular experience of that ‘world’ (perhaps) and therefore (perhaps) bring elements of the character to life with ease or more ‘authenticity’ however, a good actor should be able to do that regardless. I feel that  the ‘gay actors in gay roles’ I feel reinforces the reverse- that gay men can’t play straight roles, and therefore sets a dangerous precedent. That is a debate that is bigger in some respects than this example, and one for another discussion. What is obviously relevant is if people who saw Garfield’s performance feel offended or misrepresented as gay men by what they see on stage- irrespective of the actor’s own sexuality.
Secondary to this Garfield got some flak for out of context comments made about his preparation for the role. Taken in context these were about an actor doing everything he could think of to understand and inhabit a role. The actions he took weren’t harming anyone else, and the comments, again taken out of context also weren’t intended to harm. Personally, I feel (from my knowledge of the process and the work put in) that Garfield put in the level of extraordinary effort you would expect from any role of this size/magnitude, irrespective of the issue of sexuality. That he expressed that preparation a little poorly in a live Q&A situation doesn’t invalidate the performance, or indeed the wider support I understand he gives to the LGBTQ community. Again, it’s a topic for another discussion, but it’s a great shame that today an actor, and a person with the best of intentions towards supporting a community gets hauled across the coals for it. I also would say that Kushner himself spent much time talking to Garfield about the role and was more than pleased with the results, and that for me settles the argument.
In terms of the actual approach he takes to the role, the key critique of his work is that he is ‘too much’ ‘too camp’ or even ‘too gay’.  In short, he plays Prior in a histrionic or ‘screaming Queen’ manner. He is it is fair to say, high-strung and ‘up’ for most of the performance. And it is a lot to take. And it’s not where I normally ‘read’ or pitch Prior in my head, or indeed if I were directing it, how I’d direct it. And as a caveat to what will become an argument for why it still works, I believe there are places I would still say it doesn’t quite work. Or that I’d be directing him to shift it, or take it down a notch. But two things are at work here. Firstly this whole production doesn’t take anything in isolation, if I were breaking them down, I’d say Millennium as a piece doesn’t work, because actually it’s Act 1 (or 2 and 3) of the whole, Perestroika are acts 4 and 5. None of it is meant to work in isolation. That goes for Prior too, he makes sense in the whole, but not necessarily in any individual scene.  Garfield must do what he does in Millennium to get Prior to where he is at the end of Perestroika. It’s to go to an awful cliché, a journey for both character and actor.

But that’s not to say each moment isn’t a part of sound directorial and acting choices behind it because there clearly are. And that precisely is what makes Garfield’s performance something that is not only worth the investment of time but one that will be remembered in the history of this play. He is making bold choices, and re-writing some of the performances that have gone before, he re-wires Prior in his own interpretation building him from things that were always there and things that weren’t. In revival, in a landmark and anniversary revival there is no point trying to be Justin Kirk or Stephen Spinella. Particularly the latter, nobody can be the man the role was written for and on. And in a production, that is deliberately departing from previous elements, it makes sense that your actor playing Prior should make a bold choice and commit, even if for some it doesn’t land. That after all is part of the point of revivals, not to produce to use the Ben Brantley saying ‘Xerox copies’ but to reinvent.

Before we start however let’s give pause to the only, but perhaps the greatest piece of doubling that Kushner wrote. The actors playing Prior and Louis obviously get a raw deal in terms of having fun with doubling. However, that Garfield/Prior gets ‘The Man in the Park’ perhaps makes up for it. I was amused that people often still don’t realise it’s the same actor. But dressed in leathers Garfield gives us his best 80s Leather Queen in Central Park. It is obviously a very serious piece of important dramaturgy, in which Louis is seduced by a man who is played by his abandoned lover. However, it also gives Garfield a chance to play dress up. I really have little to say about the performance other than it’s a moment of comedy genius watching McArdle bumble his way through the illicit tryst while Garfield is (deliberately I think) unconvincingly butch and scary as the Man, while confused and naïve Louis doesn’t really notice that. I will also say that I saw this scene rehearsed in the tech run, and those are images that will forever live in my mind.
Back to Prior then. And in launching into who Prior is, from what we learn on stage, I wonder what do we really know about him- what is set in stone and what in fact is a blank slate for an actor? I don’t doubt, in fact I know that Kushner knows inside out and back to front who Prior (and Louis, and Joe) are in terms of their history (and future). But on paper we actually get less in terms of ‘facts’ than we do about many of the other characters. For those who perhaps haven’t read the play text, additional information we get is that Prior is independently wealthy and works sometimes as a club promoter (as an aside this forms part of my theory on how he and Louis met). That aside, we have only really his behaviour, and a behaviour that is modulated by a key fact; he’s recently learned he’s dying. A challenge for any actor playing Prior is that we never meet him as the ‘real’ him, or the original Prior. We see Prior already fighting already damaged, and we see him after the trauma of his diagnosis, of the play and out the other side. There’s no benchmark for an actor to hang onto, normally in a play an actor gets an establishing moment on stage or screen, the ‘this was how he/she was before’ Prior is already waist deep in grief and trauma and there’s nothing to hang onto for an actor. That’s the challenge of Prior finding him underneath all that, but also giving the Prior that’s true to that moment in his story. 
And so Garfield’s Prior is that of a Campy-Super-Queen. He is high-strung and often high pitched. And it is at times a lot. It can feel relentless and exhausting that he is so ‘up there’ for so long but actually there are a couple of things at work there. The Campness as a defence mechanism, and campiness as a contrast to vulnerability. First then the Campness as a defence mechanism. This is a particular American trait of the play- the Gay Man and use of Camp.  There’s a history of camp and a  particular language of Camp that is more uniquely American than Britain and therefore British actors, or indeed audiences may understand. That’s not to say it shouldn’t or doesn’t translate, but that there is something cultural about it. And that’s the thing that Garfield is reaching for- the bitchy, defensive Queen that uses a certain frame of reference in language and behaviour to defend against the world. So incidentally when Garfield got hauled over the coals for his RuPaul’s Drag Race comments, that as research is pretty much bang-on. He embodies that ‘Performance as Defence’ element that Drag often uses, and that Prior as a former Drag Queen would have embodied as well. And as much as in the performance context it sometimes feels a little jarring, that’s partly I feel the point- Prior IS jarring, he IS too much because that’s the trajectory he’s on.
It’s important to remember that we never meet ‘real’ Prior, or ‘before AIDS Prior’ we meet him at the worst points- when he’s terrified, and already running, and then after, in the Epilogue when he’s the version of him that came out the other side. The Prior we meet is Prior turned up to 11 or beyond. For some people (maybe Louis) the reaction to trauma is to sulk or rage in equal measure. For Prior his existing defence- to be fabulous- gets turned up to 11 or beyond. I get what Garfield is doing.
There is an argument that to the histrionics to have their full effect we have to see more of the cracks, more of the vulnerability. That if all we do see is indeed turned up to 11, how can we as an audience engage with the man under the hysterics. And it makes it hard, it makes it difficult but I think that it’s something of a clever device- and an honest one. Because as written we get very specific beats in the text when Prior does let us in; at home with Louis, to his friend Belize, and with Hannah, and to the Angels. Every other time we see him he is ‘on’ and on the defensive. There is something beautifully heart-breaking about even a Prior who is utterly alone (aside from a ghost or Angel or two) who keeps up his façade. Because that’s what ill people, people going through trauma sometimes do- the need to keep the barriers up, to keep a ‘face’ on to face the world means they keep it up alone.  And while I think that there is a case for letting the cracks show, there is something equally heart-wrenching about the fact we barely see that- the defences are that high that we never really see beyond that. As an audience we know it’s there, we know there is the real dark fear and vulnerability, but that we never get quite let into that has a heart-breaking quality all its own.  
It would be too easy almost to suddenly switch- to go from Prior on a full-frontal defence, somewhere up on the ceiling with campiness and hysteria, to a full-on breakdown in Belize’s arms, or a sudden dark contemplation. To see him breakdown completely provides catharsis for the audience yes, but is it true to the character? The writing?  I’d venture no. Because the point of Prior is that he fights and fights, we need to be aware he is close to breaking, but we can’t see him fully break. In fact, the closer he gets to breaking, the more ‘up’ he gets and the more frightening that is and upsetting for an audience. And that’s the interesting thing about this choice. While, again to refer to another Prior, Justin Kirk gives us a darker, quieter contemplation of what is happening to Prior, Garfield’s Prior never stops spinning he. ‘Dancing as Fast as he can’ he whirlwinds through every scene barely pausing to breathe whipping everyone else along with him. And it feels overwhelming, because it should. Because that’s where he is. It’s a different set of choices but it’s one that works.
The physicality of the performance is important to note. From the physical embodiment of camp through to embodiment of illness there is a lot of physicality to Garfield’s work here. From the first scene, even seated as he is for it, there’s a way he holds himself, the gestures and mannerisms that are not just planned by Garfield the actor, but Prior as well. Indeed, given the first time we see him is the revelation to Louis of his illness, it is all a planned performance by Prior the character. And these are the subtitles to Garfield’s performance- and indeed any good Prior- there is a Prior who is ‘on’ who is performed and then there is another Prior, one who we get only glimpses of. Garfield’s choice, and it’s a valid and interesting one, is to keep up that performative Prior for longer, even in private or with trusted friends, more than others in the role have. That wall of defensive performance and elevated energy is as heart-breaking as it is exhausting.  
Physically he gives us a vulnerability to Prior, he seems slighter, smaller than he usually is and seems to crumple as time goes on. And here we see the physical relationship to the illness played out. As noted we only see Prior as defined by his illness- either when in the throes of battle or later in the Epilogue, having come out the other side. There is something very conscious in Garfield’s performance about this living with the illness. From the embodiment of it physically to his behaviour. Much is made of how Priors over the years have been seen to be ‘ill’ or not. For Garfield his natural physique lends itself to physical elements- he’s small and slight naturally so a few physical ticks and some over-sized pyjamas complete the image of him slightly faded. Some nice tricks with his hair (I confess since Justin Kirk’s hair in the film I have a thing about Prior’s hair and using it to depict illness) complete the ‘look’ of illness. What he does physically however is give us a subtle nod to how his body is affected. There’s clearly a strong physical awareness and a thinking through of exactly where and how his body is affected going on.

This production contrasts with others in that the depictions of illness in both Roy and Prior are quite literal- others have gone for a less visual representation on stage- and as a result is quite visceral. However, while Roy deteriorates faster and Lane gives us a very clear playing of ‘ill’ Garfield continues his Prior fighting both his illness and showing it. Instead we get nods to his leg hurting, then getting worse. We get a slight slump in his physique at moments when he struggles with his lungs. He plays the big moments when we know something is wrong with Prior as complete manifestations of the illness but he also plays it constantly but subtly throughout the other scenes. It’s why when he does little jumps on his leg in ‘Heaven’ you suddenly realise how off kilter he’s been walking since the very beginning. He plays the physical as he plays the mental- something he is constantly fighting with until he isn’t and he lets go. So, when in the hospital with Hannah he finally collapses back into bed exhausted, we feel and see the physical drain on him alongside witnessing the mental break he experiences against the illness at that point also. A clever marrying of the physical and mental aspects of his illness at work that make both the subtle physical elements and less subtle behaviours pull together in synchronicity. So, while the human whirlwind of defiant camp is happening his body is quietly breaking down in front of us in a way that we barely notice piece by piece.

And when he does pause in that whirlwind, it gives a sense of just how carefully he has played it.If that is Prior still defiant one of the other key moments of that elusive vulnerability is his scene with Hannah in the hospital. Already discussed in terms of Susan Brown’s wonderfully tender performance. This is the moment where it feels like Prior finally runs out of steam- literally breathless at this point, he seems finally not broken, but almost captured by the illness he’s been trying desperately to outrun. And , here  for anyone struggling with the ‘up there’ Prior that Garfield gives us, is where it actually makes most sense. Because at this point Prior is still fighting to be ‘on’ to be on the defensive, fighting with everything he has- which is camp and humour and by this point as well as downright bitchy nature toward anyone who wrongs him because it’s the only fight he has yet. But finally, finally his body is taking over and stopping that fight. So, Garfield pitches him at a middle ground- he doesn’t quite give in, he’s not quiet and contemplative, his not broken and sobbing he’s still trying sassy lines ‘I wish you would stay more true to your demographic profile’ as still delivered with style, but everything is turned down a notch. It’s only then at the end of the scene when he asks Hannah to stay- a parallel to his begging Louis to stay- and she agrees does something quietly break. Hannah’s care for him is what eventually breaks through Prior’s defences- and that’s a cleverly played move. Because that need for care is what puts him on that extreme footing. And when others offer him care it’s the only time he comes down from the point of near hysteria he ends up living his life on. When Belize first reaches out to him in the hospital and he sobs, and now when Hannah touches his cancer-marked skin. Kushner actually writes it into the stage directions here ‘He Calms down’ but Garfield takes that an makes it bigger than that moment. For his Prior Hannah’s care brings him down and crashes through a defence mechanism he’s been holding onto and holding up for so long. There’s no great sobbing this time but the quiet in that scene is so telling, and more moving because it’s pitched against all the moments of loud raging against the light he does to this point. It’s a long game Garfield plays, across these long plays and there are moments like that of pure gold in it that make it worthwhile. 
Therefore, to backtrack to the beginning, and in this essay to the sense that we don’t see much of the ‘real’ Prior in any sense; the scene in the bedroom with Louis at the end of act 1 is so important, it’s the first time (and last for a while) that we see a glimpse of not the ‘real’ Prior because he still has walls up, wary as he is about Louis and what he fears he may do, but he’s more exposed. Garfield plays it with a tenderness, a softness that shows just how deeply Prior feels for Louis, and foreshadows just how great the impending betrayal will be.  Here Garfield reminds us that vulnerability, or showing the emotion of the character doesn’t have to be crying or sadness. His ‘Yes’ to Louis’ question ‘If I walked out on this would you hate me forever?’ is so cool, collected and matter of fact it’s both terrifying to Louis- as it should be- but also leaves no doubt at the measure of hurt Prior is feeling. And of course, gives us insight into the wider picture, and way that Garfield communicates the relationship with Louis.
Perhaps the highlight of Garfield’s performance is the sheer force of love towards his boyfriend Louis, which is met- as I talk about in his section- with McArdle’s playing his love for Prior as worshipping a ‘goddess’ (his words, see later). Garfield being physically smaller, slighter than McArdle. And yes his waspish (in both senses) girlish camp balances perfectly with McArdle’s bigger stature and more masculine affectations- though it’s a credit to McArdle and Garfield that they don’t go all the way to extremes of cliché and play one as the campy and one as the manly man- McArdle knows where to pitch his Louis as a counterpoint to Garfield’s Prior but still the man who earns the nickname ‘Louise’. In short they are both ‘Queens’ but from different angles. It’s somewhat a quirk of casting and luck but their respective physical presence allows Garfield to play on some elements, particularly in their bedroom scene. Garfield is small and vulnerable looking in his oversized pyjamas, curled up against McArdle- larger, looking physically stronger in every sense-produces a sense of Prior’s passivity, Louis’ dominance. It’s actually cleverly played as it’s clear that Prior is the more dominant of the pair, and the driver of their relationship. There seems to be a clever play of Garfield letting Prior be vulnerable, exposed with is partner at this point, showing the love and trust that has existed between them before things are ripped apart. Prior very much in charge of Louis in many ways, Garfield leads McArdle’s Louis in this scene in clever ways.  And yes, for those whose minds are still there, the sexual dynamics of the relationship aren’t too difficult to figure out either.
 The point (dear the point) of their relationship dynamics across this scene is both that is allows Garfield to bring out some quiet complexities of the character that are lost in the bigger moments (of his own making and the plays) but also proof that he is playing the tiny details as much as the big picture. There is, to Elliott’s credit an entire secondary scene that plays out at this point outside the dialogue, making full use of the split scenes. During their discussion about justice/argument about Prior’s condition he throws in a few variations to keep a feeling of spontaneity or naturalism to their relationship- he changed almost nightly (in seemed) a variation on what he did for the line ‘You’re over sexed’ from biting McArdle’s neck, tickling him or various other things. A neat acting trick to keep things fresh over the run but a nice nod to how his Prior also seemed to react differently in this scene according to the mood Garfield was running with that night. He mentioned that his approach was just to ‘live it’ as Prior night on night and this is one of the scenes that seemed to have a fair bit of variation to it. There’s a little bed-time dance that goes on after Louis’ plea of ‘don’t get any sicker’ after a fierce embrace and a kiss they both settle down for bed. 
This strays more into a scene analysis but it’s one that’s been in my mind, but for no logistical reason I can figure they swap places in the bed- so where Louis has been lying is ‘Prior’s side’ which I’m sure has some kind of meaning that I’m damned if I can figure out. What Garfield does here silently speaks volumes however, when he lies down and waits for McArdle/Louis to curl up next to/around him. There’s some fantastic relationship dynamics at play in their simple bedtime routine. The quiet command Garfield has as Prior that this conversation is now over, feeding into a more not quite submissive but getting there, response from McArdle. And while they have a quietly sweet moment of a couple giving in on a fight and going to sleep, Garfield peppers the rest of the scene (seemingly dependant on his mood from repeat viewings) with a variety of tender gestures towards Louis- from playing with his hair, kissing his head or stroking his arm. A final brilliant touch in this scene- which is played in almost- darkness while the audience is supposed to be listening to Roy’s doctor (it’s not that what she’s saying isn’t important…) but Garfield plays it that Prior can’t sleep.  I saw him both lie there eyes wide open staring at the ceiling, and play it a bit more ‘restless’ half sleeping, caressing Louis a bit then lying awake. It’s a tiny touch and one that most of the audience don’t and possibly shouldn’t notice if they’re playing by the rules of what they should be watching. But it’s a lovely touch that the entire scene is played right to the end and that detail is brilliantly thought out. (Meanwhile I’m sure McArdle was enjoying his mini-nap every night with his Garfield pillow).

This ‘scene analysis’ actually helps make a larger point about smaller details. It’s easy to dismiss Garfield’s Prior as all shouting, and snot. As being that ‘turned up to 11’ Prior with nothing else going on. But there is an argument that he is ‘up there’ precisely because there is so much going on. He doesn’t make it easy to watch his Prior. It’s hard on the senses, but actually isn’t that the point? It shouldn’t be easy to watch him go through this. Kushner didn’t write a neat play of easy catharsis for an audience where we all get to have a good cry over Prior’s death and move on. He wrote a hard slog for character and author, and that’s what Garfield gives us.
But what he also gives us in humour, and that’s something that is often undervalued or overlooked in Prior. Because without it that seven and a half hours is one hell of a slog indeed for everyone. So while it might be in part ‘silly camp’ and in part a way of expressing Prior’s struggle, there is an undercurrent that Prior and by association Garfield are in fact just very funny people. From the acerbic delivery of ‘Cousin Doris is a dyke’ to the, frankly pitch perfect ‘Fuck you, I’m a Prophet!’ Garfield can deliver a witty line with the best of them. But his camp in itself is also delivered with a knowing wink and wit. From the simple touches in the way he carries himself or delivers a look or a line, whatever else the purposes of camp humour, it’s also humour and Garfield plays the lines and the audience to carry the play through and lift it up. And while his ‘turned up to 11’ behaviour serves other purposes it’s also incredibly funny at times (which while we’re at it plays on the tradgedy further, it’s funny but it hurts). Honestly the image of him leaping about the bed and squirting holy water in a deadpan Russell Tovey’s face is simply a funny mise-en-scene and Garfield’s willowy leaps and accompanying screeches do just make it terribly terribly funny. His over the top performance adds an element of farce, the ‘Shoo Shoo’ to the Angel to the screeching at the fiery book. It’s ridiculous and over the top and Prior/Garfield know it is, but it serves a dual purpose- all the narrative reasoning but also to lift the audience and bring them along with them. For all the over the top moments though, it is the fact that Garfield is- an until now unknown I think- natural comedian when it comes to delivering a killer line. A raised eyebrow above those big-brown eyes gives any of those one-liners perfect cutting and comedic delivery. And a funny Prior, a really funny Prior isn’t one we see often, and it endears him- we wish we could come up with the perfect put down to our own ex-boyfriends-Mormon-Lovers after all.
And so, there’s rhyme reason and wit to Garfield’s Prior. But underneath all that, after all that he does give us the ‘payoff’ we’re looking for. We do get that quiet, contemplative and emotive moment. We do of course get lots of them peppered across the play- because that’s how real people dealing with grief do behave. It’s all there, things ebb and flow in scenes, up and down there are quiet moments against the high camp. He gives us beats in almost every scene where we see him/Prior take a breath, and we see all this underneath. But finally, after we see him breakdown for the first time since Act 1 with Hannah in the hospital, we see ‘our’ Prior (for he is at this point) rise up while breaking down in his address to the Angels. And then we see him change as we move to the Epilogue.
Garfield’s Prior addresses the Angels with the ‘elegance and grace’ he longed for since Act 1. When he turns to ask for ‘More Life’ it comes from the deepest part of him, with everything stripped back. As much as the set as at this point been stripped back to the bare bones of the theatre, so has Garfield’s Prior. It is a raw and honest speech and leaves you wondering if much like the theatre, a lot of Prior has now fallen away and left us with some of Garfield on show after he has gone through this marathon. So, when the stage directions read ‘Grief breaking through’ there is a real sense of not only something breaking down but walls breaking down. In these moments what Garfield has done throughout the play, throughout at this point nearly 7 hours of performance of that ‘turned up to 11’ Prior, with defence mechanisms for the character almost (but not always) up, is for this scene to work as well as it does. Stripped back is the order of the day in Elliot’s direction, and it is also for Garfield’s performance. Open and raw he pleads with the Angels for more life. It’s extremely quiet and understated. Perhaps if it’s easy to dismiss the camp loud performance it’s just as easy to dismiss this. But there is such a raw honesty to every beat he plays from here to the end of the Epilogue. A rare moment of quiet in this busy, epic piece of theatre it is as if everything else falls away. We’re aware of the other characters on stage but it’s Garfield’s voice alone we hear at this point. He finds, I think, in this moment that voice within Prior that was there all along, has always been there, the voice that is quiet and determined and says quite simply ‘I want to live’. Garfield travels a long way, and does hard work to get to that point, but it only works as powerfully because of how he got there. And then it’s a smaller step to the Epilogue.

As Prior says in the Epilogue ‘I’m almost done’. But there’s a moment worth noting before we get there- the moment between him and McArdle in Prior’s hospital room. A lovely parallel in Kushner’s writing to their original bedroom scene together. There’s little to say other than to comment on the exquisite tenderness with which they both play it, and there’s more said in McArlde’s section. But the most important take Garfield has in this play perhaps is when his Prior says, ‘You can never come back, not ever’ I don’t believe him.

There’s an entire blog post about the Epilogue I want to write, but much like the scene in Heaven it is played with a quiet but pitch-perfect kind of determination from Garfield. And it kind of pulls together a bit of everything in one. Physically we see a change in him- again an aside to costume choices that instantly transform him, from pyjama clad and at this point frankly a bit sticky (from the tears, sweat and snot I’m kind of afraid he’d morphed into). He emerges dressed in a smart coat, scarf trousers and jumper. He looks put back together. His glasses and walking stick betray the physical ailments that still plague him, but physically he seems stronger. And mentally we immediately get a sense of clarity, togetherness. And Prior seems to have been put back together by Garfield in the 5 minutes he was off stage, not quite whole but certainly taped back together now. And in a quiet and purposeful way he recounts the lessons learned of the last five years- or the last seven hours. It’s open, and honest and sincere, quietly confident. It takes seven hours for his Prior to get there because it needs to, as the Mormon mother says ‘it doesn’t count if it’s easy’ and I think that’s why Garfield’s Prior is so much ‘hard work’ in every sense. He has to be, because otherwise it doesn’t work, it doesn’t count.
So what to make of Garfield’s Prior? Two things I think for me on reflection, firstly that he is so engaging that he pulls the audience into Prior’s world and secondly, he is so full of hope. Garfield’s Prior revised that- there’s so much hope there and I’m convinced that everything worked out. And before that Garfield pulled me so fully into Prior’s story- usually I watch Angels with a brain that’s firing across so many channels, politics, religion, real life characters, morality, following everyone’s story at once. But , Garfield  grounds this production. The whole narrative really rests on the pillars of Prior and Harper and here they are a ‘dream team’ to anchor that narrative. All the other stuff still happens and still seeps into the brain, but it’s weighted in these two stories- on one side held down and pulled together by Garfield. There’s a cleverness to the performance, you see him being very funny, you see him cry and reach points of hysteria. There are moments you can pull apart and say, ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’ but actually like the play itself his performance is the sum of its parts not each individual scene. Take any part alone and it doesn’t necessarily work. Maybe he doesn’t need to scream so loudly, maybe he doesn’t need to be quite as camp and bitchy on that line or this. But it works as the sum of its parts. It works because there is a thought process, a reason and reasoning behind it. But it also works because it works in the narrative. It works as the character. When Prior’s story reaches its conclusion it works, and it’s one of those ineffable things within theatre that at that point you can’t quite figure out why it works it just does.
But more important than that, it works because you leave the theatre with hope. The Epilogue, the invocation to the audience that he delivers is filled with such sincerity and hope that I do wonder at what point in that, in a suitably Brechtian manner, Andrew Garfield the actor starts to seep back into Prior Walter-  it’s a fittingly hopeful thought that as Prior reaches that point of letting go and turning things over to the audience that the character lets go of the actor and those words come from both.
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Cast Notes: Andrew Garfield- Prior

And finally, after much ado, notes on Andrew Garfield as Prior…

Garfield was the performer I saw evolve most across the run. Although some might critique this, thinking he should have been ‘set’ as Prior by opening night, it’s testament to an actor still working, still discovering. For an actor who has worked predominantly on film as well, it seems precisely the point of taking on a theatre role- to have something continuously evolving to work with. This also sums up his approach (as I observed it) as an actor who was ‘living’ or ‘experiencing’ the whole thing every night, and as a technique for Prior that’s hard, but something that can really pay off. His Prior grew as he as an actor grew into the role. That was, as Kushner might say realising a bit of theatrical magic happening right there. Emotionally played to the core, from up close an often-painful watch as he goes through not just the physical trials but faces Prior’s emotional challenges (and a few angels). It’s emotional, granted often loud, anguished and at times outlandish (drag can be a drag after all) but it’s always honest to the character, and serves the play not the actor.
There’s been two main critiques of Garfield’s Prior, basically of the same element but one internal to the performance and one external. The external relates to both the fact that he is a straight man playing the role, and from some out of context comments about his preparation for the role. I do understand that many gay men feel strongly that such an iconic ‘gay’ role should have been played by a gay man, and that there is a level of experience and understanding associated with that. I understand that stance, personally I would disagree. I understand the idea that gay men will have particular experience of that ‘world’ (perhaps) and therefore (perhaps) bring elements of the character to life with ease or more ‘authenticity’ however, a good actor should be able to do that regardless. I feel that  the ‘gay actors in gay roles’ I feel reinforces the reverse- that gay men can’t play straight roles, and therefore sets a dangerous precedent. That is a debate that is bigger in some respects than this example, and one for another discussion. What is obviously relevant is if people who saw Garfield’s performance feel offended or misrepresented as gay men by what they see on stage- irrespective of the actor’s own sexuality.
Secondary to this Garfield got some flak for out of context comments made about his preparation for the role. Taken in context these were about an actor doing everything he could think of to understand and inhabit a role. The actions he took weren’t harming anyone else, and the comments, again taken out of context also weren’t intended to harm. Personally, I feel (from my knowledge of the process and the work put in) that Garfield put in the level of extraordinary effort you would expect from any role of this size/magnitude, irrespective of the issue of sexuality. That he expressed that preparation a little poorly in a live Q&A situation doesn’t invalidate the performance, or indeed the wider support I understand he gives to the LGBTQ community. Again, it’s a topic for another discussion, but it’s a great shame that today an actor, and a person with the best of intentions towards supporting a community gets hauled across the coals for it. I also would say that Kushner himself spent much time talking to Garfield about the role and was more than pleased with the results, and that for me settles the argument.
In terms of the actual approach he takes to the role, the key critique of his work is that he is ‘too much’ ‘too camp’ or even ‘too gay’.  In short, he plays Prior in a histrionic or ‘screaming Queen’ manner. He is it is fair to say, high-strung and ‘up’ for most of the performance. And it is a lot to take. And it’s not where I normally ‘read’ or pitch Prior in my head, or indeed if I were directing it, how I’d direct it. And as a caveat to what will become an argument for why it still works, I believe there are places I would still say it doesn’t quite work. Or that I’d be directing him to shift it, or take it down a notch. But two things are at work here. Firstly this whole production doesn’t take anything in isolation, if I were breaking them down, I’d say Millennium as a piece doesn’t work, because actually it’s Act 1 (or 2 and 3) of the whole, Perestroika are acts 4 and 5. None of it is meant to work in isolation. That goes for Prior too, he makes sense in the whole, but not necessarily in any individual scene.  Garfield must do what he does in Millennium to get Prior to where he is at the end of Perestroika. It’s to go to an awful cliché, a journey for both character and actor.

But that’s not to say each moment isn’t a part of sound directorial and acting choices behind it because there clearly are. And that precisely is what makes Garfield’s performance something that is not only worth the investment of time but one that will be remembered in the history of this play. He is making bold choices, and re-writing some of the performances that have gone before, he re-wires Prior in his own interpretation building him from things that were always there and things that weren’t. In revival, in a landmark and anniversary revival there is no point trying to be Justin Kirk or Stephen Spinella. Particularly the latter, nobody can be the man the role was written for and on. And in a production, that is deliberately departing from previous elements, it makes sense that your actor playing Prior should make a bold choice and commit, even if for some it doesn’t land. That after all is part of the point of revivals, not to produce to use the Ben Brantley saying ‘Xerox copies’ but to reinvent.

Before we start however let’s give pause to the only, but perhaps the greatest piece of doubling that Kushner wrote. The actors playing Prior and Louis obviously get a raw deal in terms of having fun with doubling. However, that Garfield/Prior gets ‘The Man in the Park’ perhaps makes up for it. I was amused that people often still don’t realise it’s the same actor. But dressed in leathers Garfield gives us his best 80s Leather Queen in Central Park. It is obviously a very serious piece of important dramaturgy, in which Louis is seduced by a man who is played by his abandoned lover. However, it also gives Garfield a chance to play dress up. I really have little to say about the performance other than it’s a moment of comedy genius watching McArdle bumble his way through the illicit tryst while Garfield is (deliberately I think) unconvincingly butch and scary as the Man, while confused and naïve Louis doesn’t really notice that. I will also say that I saw this scene rehearsed in the tech run, and those are images that will forever live in my mind.
Back to Prior then. And in launching into who Prior is, from what we learn on stage, I wonder what do we really know about him- what is set in stone and what in fact is a blank slate for an actor? I don’t doubt, in fact I know that Kushner knows inside out and back to front who Prior (and Louis, and Joe) are in terms of their history (and future). But on paper we actually get less in terms of ‘facts’ than we do about many of the other characters. For those who perhaps haven’t read the play text, additional information we get is that Prior is independently wealthy and works sometimes as a club promoter (as an aside this forms part of my theory on how he and Louis met). That aside, we have only really his behaviour, and a behaviour that is modulated by a key fact; he’s recently learned he’s dying. A challenge for any actor playing Prior is that we never meet him as the ‘real’ him, or the original Prior. We see Prior already fighting already damaged, and we see him after the trauma of his diagnosis, of the play and out the other side. There’s no benchmark for an actor to hang onto, normally in a play an actor gets an establishing moment on stage or screen, the ‘this was how he/she was before’ Prior is already waist deep in grief and trauma and there’s nothing to hang onto for an actor. That’s the challenge of Prior finding him underneath all that, but also giving the Prior that’s true to that moment in his story. 
And so Garfield’s Prior is that of a Campy-Super-Queen. He is high-strung and often high pitched. And it is at times a lot. It can feel relentless and exhausting that he is so ‘up there’ for so long but actually there are a couple of things at work there. The Campness as a defence mechanism, and campiness as a contrast to vulnerability. First then the Campness as a defence mechanism. This is a particular American trait of the play- the Gay Man and use of Camp.  There’s a history of camp and a  particular language of Camp that is more uniquely American than Britain and therefore British actors, or indeed audiences may understand. That’s not to say it shouldn’t or doesn’t translate, but that there is something cultural about it. And that’s the thing that Garfield is reaching for- the bitchy, defensive Queen that uses a certain frame of reference in language and behaviour to defend against the world. So incidentally when Garfield got hauled over the coals for his RuPaul’s Drag Race comments, that as research is pretty much bang-on. He embodies that ‘Performance as Defence’ element that Drag often uses, and that Prior as a former Drag Queen would have embodied as well. And as much as in the performance context it sometimes feels a little jarring, that’s partly I feel the point- Prior IS jarring, he IS too much because that’s the trajectory he’s on.
It’s important to remember that we never meet ‘real’ Prior, or ‘before AIDS Prior’ we meet him at the worst points- when he’s terrified, and already running, and then after, in the Epilogue when he’s the version of him that came out the other side. The Prior we meet is Prior turned up to 11 or beyond. For some people (maybe Louis) the reaction to trauma is to sulk or rage in equal measure. For Prior his existing defence- to be fabulous- gets turned up to 11 or beyond. I get what Garfield is doing.
There is an argument that to the histrionics to have their full effect we have to see more of the cracks, more of the vulnerability. That if all we do see is indeed turned up to 11, how can we as an audience engage with the man under the hysterics. And it makes it hard, it makes it difficult but I think that it’s something of a clever device- and an honest one. Because as written we get very specific beats in the text when Prior does let us in; at home with Louis, to his friend Belize, and with Hannah, and to the Angels. Every other time we see him he is ‘on’ and on the defensive. There is something beautifully heart-breaking about even a Prior who is utterly alone (aside from a ghost or Angel or two) who keeps up his façade. Because that’s what ill people, people going through trauma sometimes do- the need to keep the barriers up, to keep a ‘face’ on to face the world means they keep it up alone.  And while I think that there is a case for letting the cracks show, there is something equally heart-wrenching about the fact we barely see that- the defences are that high that we never really see beyond that. As an audience we know it’s there, we know there is the real dark fear and vulnerability, but that we never get quite let into that has a heart-breaking quality all its own.  
It would be too easy almost to suddenly switch- to go from Prior on a full-frontal defence, somewhere up on the ceiling with campiness and hysteria, to a full-on breakdown in Belize’s arms, or a sudden dark contemplation. To see him breakdown completely provides catharsis for the audience yes, but is it true to the character? The writing?  I’d venture no. Because the point of Prior is that he fights and fights, we need to be aware he is close to breaking, but we can’t see him fully break. In fact, the closer he gets to breaking, the more ‘up’ he gets and the more frightening that is and upsetting for an audience. And that’s the interesting thing about this choice. While, again to refer to another Prior, Justin Kirk gives us a darker, quieter contemplation of what is happening to Prior, Garfield’s Prior never stops spinning he. ‘Dancing as Fast as he can’ he whirlwinds through every scene barely pausing to breathe whipping everyone else along with him. And it feels overwhelming, because it should. Because that’s where he is. It’s a different set of choices but it’s one that works.
The physicality of the performance is important to note. From the physical embodiment of camp through to embodiment of illness there is a lot of physicality to Garfield’s work here. From the first scene, even seated as he is for it, there’s a way he holds himself, the gestures and mannerisms that are not just planned by Garfield the actor, but Prior as well. Indeed, given the first time we see him is the revelation to Louis of his illness, it is all a planned performance by Prior the character. And these are the subtitles to Garfield’s performance- and indeed any good Prior- there is a Prior who is ‘on’ who is performed and then there is another Prior, one who we get only glimpses of. Garfield’s choice, and it’s a valid and interesting one, is to keep up that performative Prior for longer, even in private or with trusted friends, more than others in the role have. That wall of defensive performance and elevated energy is as heart-breaking as it is exhausting.  
Physically he gives us a vulnerability to Prior, he seems slighter, smaller than he usually is and seems to crumple as time goes on. And here we see the physical relationship to the illness played out. As noted we only see Prior as defined by his illness- either when in the throes of battle or later in the Epilogue, having come out the other side. There is something very conscious in Garfield’s performance about this living with the illness. From the embodiment of it physically to his behaviour. Much is made of how Priors over the years have been seen to be ‘ill’ or not. For Garfield his natural physique lends itself to physical elements- he’s small and slight naturally so a few physical ticks and some over-sized pyjamas complete the image of him slightly faded. Some nice tricks with his hair (I confess since Justin Kirk’s hair in the film I have a thing about Prior’s hair and using it to depict illness) complete the ‘look’ of illness. What he does physically however is give us a subtle nod to how his body is affected. There’s clearly a strong physical awareness and a thinking through of exactly where and how his body is affected going on.

This production contrasts with others in that the depictions of illness in both Roy and Prior are quite literal- others have gone for a less visual representation on stage- and as a result is quite visceral. However, while Roy deteriorates faster and Lane gives us a very clear playing of ‘ill’ Garfield continues his Prior fighting both his illness and showing it. Instead we get nods to his leg hurting, then getting worse. We get a slight slump in his physique at moments when he struggles with his lungs. He plays the big moments when we know something is wrong with Prior as complete manifestations of the illness but he also plays it constantly but subtly throughout the other scenes. It’s why when he does little jumps on his leg in ‘Heaven’ you suddenly realise how off kilter he’s been walking since the very beginning. He plays the physical as he plays the mental- something he is constantly fighting with until he isn’t and he lets go. So, when in the hospital with Hannah he finally collapses back into bed exhausted, we feel and see the physical drain on him alongside witnessing the mental break he experiences against the illness at that point also. A clever marrying of the physical and mental aspects of his illness at work that make both the subtle physical elements and less subtle behaviours pull together in synchronicity. So, while the human whirlwind of defiant camp is happening his body is quietly breaking down in front of us in a way that we barely notice piece by piece.

And when he does pause in that whirlwind, it gives a sense of just how carefully he has played it.If that is Prior still defiant one of the other key moments of that elusive vulnerability is his scene with Hannah in the hospital. Already discussed in terms of Susan Brown’s wonderfully tender performance. This is the moment where it feels like Prior finally runs out of steam- literally breathless at this point, he seems finally not broken, but almost captured by the illness he’s been trying desperately to outrun. And , here  for anyone struggling with the ‘up there’ Prior that Garfield gives us, is where it actually makes most sense. Because at this point Prior is still fighting to be ‘on’ to be on the defensive, fighting with everything he has- which is camp and humour and by this point as well as downright bitchy nature toward anyone who wrongs him because it’s the only fight he has yet. But finally, finally his body is taking over and stopping that fight. So, Garfield pitches him at a middle ground- he doesn’t quite give in, he’s not quiet and contemplative, his not broken and sobbing he’s still trying sassy lines ‘I wish you would stay more true to your demographic profile’ as still delivered with style, but everything is turned down a notch. It’s only then at the end of the scene when he asks Hannah to stay- a parallel to his begging Louis to stay- and she agrees does something quietly break. Hannah’s care for him is what eventually breaks through Prior’s defences- and that’s a cleverly played move. Because that need for care is what puts him on that extreme footing. And when others offer him care it’s the only time he comes down from the point of near hysteria he ends up living his life on. When Belize first reaches out to him in the hospital and he sobs, and now when Hannah touches his cancer-marked skin. Kushner actually writes it into the stage directions here ‘He Calms down’ but Garfield takes that an makes it bigger than that moment. For his Prior Hannah’s care brings him down and crashes through a defence mechanism he’s been holding onto and holding up for so long. There’s no great sobbing this time but the quiet in that scene is so telling, and more moving because it’s pitched against all the moments of loud raging against the light he does to this point. It’s a long game Garfield plays, across these long plays and there are moments like that of pure gold in it that make it worthwhile. 
Therefore, to backtrack to the beginning, and in this essay to the sense that we don’t see much of the ‘real’ Prior in any sense; the scene in the bedroom with Louis at the end of act 1 is so important, it’s the first time (and last for a while) that we see a glimpse of not the ‘real’ Prior because he still has walls up, wary as he is about Louis and what he fears he may do, but he’s more exposed. Garfield plays it with a tenderness, a softness that shows just how deeply Prior feels for Louis, and foreshadows just how great the impending betrayal will be.  Here Garfield reminds us that vulnerability, or showing the emotion of the character doesn’t have to be crying or sadness. His ‘Yes’ to Louis’ question ‘If I walked out on this would you hate me forever?’ is so cool, collected and matter of fact it’s both terrifying to Louis- as it should be- but also leaves no doubt at the measure of hurt Prior is feeling. And of course, gives us insight into the wider picture, and way that Garfield communicates the relationship with Louis.
Perhaps the highlight of Garfield’s performance is the sheer force of love towards his boyfriend Louis, which is met- as I talk about in his section- with McArdle’s playing his love for Prior as worshipping a ‘goddess’ (his words, see later). Garfield being physically smaller, slighter than McArdle. And yes his waspish (in both senses) girlish camp balances perfectly with McArdle’s bigger stature and more masculine affectations- though it’s a credit to McArdle and Garfield that they don’t go all the way to extremes of cliché and play one as the campy and one as the manly man- McArdle knows where to pitch his Louis as a counterpoint to Garfield’s Prior but still the man who earns the nickname ‘Louise’. In short they are both ‘Queens’ but from different angles. It’s somewhat a quirk of casting and luck but their respective physical presence allows Garfield to play on some elements, particularly in their bedroom scene. Garfield is small and vulnerable looking in his oversized pyjamas, curled up against McArdle- larger, looking physically stronger in every sense-produces a sense of Prior’s passivity, Louis’ dominance. It’s actually cleverly played as it’s clear that Prior is the more dominant of the pair, and the driver of their relationship. There seems to be a clever play of Garfield letting Prior be vulnerable, exposed with is partner at this point, showing the love and trust that has existed between them before things are ripped apart. Prior very much in charge of Louis in many ways, Garfield leads McArdle’s Louis in this scene in clever ways.  And yes, for those whose minds are still there, the sexual dynamics of the relationship aren’t too difficult to figure out either.
 The point (dear the point) of their relationship dynamics across this scene is both that is allows Garfield to bring out some quiet complexities of the character that are lost in the bigger moments (of his own making and the plays) but also proof that he is playing the tiny details as much as the big picture. There is, to Elliott’s credit an entire secondary scene that plays out at this point outside the dialogue, making full use of the split scenes. During their discussion about justice/argument about Prior’s condition he throws in a few variations to keep a feeling of spontaneity or naturalism to their relationship- he changed almost nightly (in seemed) a variation on what he did for the line ‘You’re over sexed’ from biting McArdle’s neck, tickling him or various other things. A neat acting trick to keep things fresh over the run but a nice nod to how his Prior also seemed to react differently in this scene according to the mood Garfield was running with that night. He mentioned that his approach was just to ‘live it’ as Prior night on night and this is one of the scenes that seemed to have a fair bit of variation to it. There’s a little bed-time dance that goes on after Louis’ plea of ‘don’t get any sicker’ after a fierce embrace and a kiss they both settle down for bed. 
This strays more into a scene analysis but it’s one that’s been in my mind, but for no logistical reason I can figure they swap places in the bed- so where Louis has been lying is ‘Prior’s side’ which I’m sure has some kind of meaning that I’m damned if I can figure out. What Garfield does here silently speaks volumes however, when he lies down and waits for McArdle/Louis to curl up next to/around him. There’s some fantastic relationship dynamics at play in their simple bedtime routine. The quiet command Garfield has as Prior that this conversation is now over, feeding into a more not quite submissive but getting there, response from McArdle. And while they have a quietly sweet moment of a couple giving in on a fight and going to sleep, Garfield peppers the rest of the scene (seemingly dependant on his mood from repeat viewings) with a variety of tender gestures towards Louis- from playing with his hair, kissing his head or stroking his arm. A final brilliant touch in this scene- which is played in almost- darkness while the audience is supposed to be listening to Roy’s doctor (it’s not that what she’s saying isn’t important…) but Garfield plays it that Prior can’t sleep.  I saw him both lie there eyes wide open staring at the ceiling, and play it a bit more ‘restless’ half sleeping, caressing Louis a bit then lying awake. It’s a tiny touch and one that most of the audience don’t and possibly shouldn’t notice if they’re playing by the rules of what they should be watching. But it’s a lovely touch that the entire scene is played right to the end and that detail is brilliantly thought out. (Meanwhile I’m sure McArdle was enjoying his mini-nap every night with his Garfield pillow).

This ‘scene analysis’ actually helps make a larger point about smaller details. It’s easy to dismiss Garfield’s Prior as all shouting, and snot. As being that ‘turned up to 11’ Prior with nothing else going on. But there is an argument that he is ‘up there’ precisely because there is so much going on. He doesn’t make it easy to watch his Prior. It’s hard on the senses, but actually isn’t that the point? It shouldn’t be easy to watch him go through this. Kushner didn’t write a neat play of easy catharsis for an audience where we all get to have a good cry over Prior’s death and move on. He wrote a hard slog for character and author, and that’s what Garfield gives us.
But what he also gives us in humour, and that’s something that is often undervalued or overlooked in Prior. Because without it that seven and a half hours is one hell of a slog indeed for everyone. So while it might be in part ‘silly camp’ and in part a way of expressing Prior’s struggle, there is an undercurrent that Prior and by association Garfield are in fact just very funny people. From the acerbic delivery of ‘Cousin Doris is a dyke’ to the, frankly pitch perfect ‘Fuck you, I’m a Prophet!’ Garfield can deliver a witty line with the best of them. But his camp in itself is also delivered with a knowing wink and wit. From the simple touches in the way he carries himself or delivers a look or a line, whatever else the purposes of camp humour, it’s also humour and Garfield plays the lines and the audience to carry the play through and lift it up. And while his ‘turned up to 11’ behaviour serves other purposes it’s also incredibly funny at times (which while we’re at it plays on the tradgedy further, it’s funny but it hurts). Honestly the image of him leaping about the bed and squirting holy water in a deadpan Russell Tovey’s face is simply a funny mise-en-scene and Garfield’s willowy leaps and accompanying screeches do just make it terribly terribly funny. His over the top performance adds an element of farce, the ‘Shoo Shoo’ to the Angel to the screeching at the fiery book. It’s ridiculous and over the top and Prior/Garfield know it is, but it serves a dual purpose- all the narrative reasoning but also to lift the audience and bring them along with them. For all the over the top moments though, it is the fact that Garfield is- an until now unknown I think- natural comedian when it comes to delivering a killer line. A raised eyebrow above those big-brown eyes gives any of those one-liners perfect cutting and comedic delivery. And a funny Prior, a really funny Prior isn’t one we see often, and it endears him- we wish we could come up with the perfect put down to our own ex-boyfriends-Mormon-Lovers after all.
And so, there’s rhyme reason and wit to Garfield’s Prior. But underneath all that, after all that he does give us the ‘payoff’ we’re looking for. We do get that quiet, contemplative and emotive moment. We do of course get lots of them peppered across the play- because that’s how real people dealing with grief do behave. It’s all there, things ebb and flow in scenes, up and down there are quiet moments against the high camp. He gives us beats in almost every scene where we see him/Prior take a breath, and we see all this underneath. But finally, after we see him breakdown for the first time since Act 1 with Hannah in the hospital, we see ‘our’ Prior (for he is at this point) rise up while breaking down in his address to the Angels. And then we see him change as we move to the Epilogue.
Garfield’s Prior addresses the Angels with the ‘elegance and grace’ he longed for since Act 1. When he turns to ask for ‘More Life’ it comes from the deepest part of him, with everything stripped back. As much as the set as at this point been stripped back to the bare bones of the theatre, so has Garfield’s Prior. It is a raw and honest speech and leaves you wondering if much like the theatre, a lot of Prior has now fallen away and left us with some of Garfield on show after he has gone through this marathon. So, when the stage directions read ‘Grief breaking through’ there is a real sense of not only something breaking down but walls breaking down. In these moments what Garfield has done throughout the play, throughout at this point nearly 7 hours of performance of that ‘turned up to 11’ Prior, with defence mechanisms for the character almost (but not always) up, is for this scene to work as well as it does. Stripped back is the order of the day in Elliot’s direction, and it is also for Garfield’s performance. Open and raw he pleads with the Angels for more life. It’s extremely quiet and understated. Perhaps if it’s easy to dismiss the camp loud performance it’s just as easy to dismiss this. But there is such a raw honesty to every beat he plays from here to the end of the Epilogue. A rare moment of quiet in this busy, epic piece of theatre it is as if everything else falls away. We’re aware of the other characters on stage but it’s Garfield’s voice alone we hear at this point. He finds, I think, in this moment that voice within Prior that was there all along, has always been there, the voice that is quiet and determined and says quite simply ‘I want to live’. Garfield travels a long way, and does hard work to get to that point, but it only works as powerfully because of how he got there. And then it’s a smaller step to the Epilogue.

As Prior says in the Epilogue ‘I’m almost done’. But there’s a moment worth noting before we get there- the moment between him and McArdle in Prior’s hospital room. A lovely parallel in Kushner’s writing to their original bedroom scene together. There’s little to say other than to comment on the exquisite tenderness with which they both play it, and there’s more said in McArlde’s section. But the most important take Garfield has in this play perhaps is when his Prior says, ‘You can never come back, not ever’ I don’t believe him.

There’s an entire blog post about the Epilogue I want to write, but much like the scene in Heaven it is played with a quiet but pitch-perfect kind of determination from Garfield. And it kind of pulls together a bit of everything in one. Physically we see a change in him- again an aside to costume choices that instantly transform him, from pyjama clad and at this point frankly a bit sticky (from the tears, sweat and snot I’m kind of afraid he’d morphed into). He emerges dressed in a smart coat, scarf trousers and jumper. He looks put back together. His glasses and walking stick betray the physical ailments that still plague him, but physically he seems stronger. And mentally we immediately get a sense of clarity, togetherness. And Prior seems to have been put back together by Garfield in the 5 minutes he was off stage, not quite whole but certainly taped back together now. And in a quiet and purposeful way he recounts the lessons learned of the last five years- or the last seven hours. It’s open, and honest and sincere, quietly confident. It takes seven hours for his Prior to get there because it needs to, as the Mormon mother says ‘it doesn’t count if it’s easy’ and I think that’s why Garfield’s Prior is so much ‘hard work’ in every sense. He has to be, because otherwise it doesn’t work, it doesn’t count.
So what to make of Garfield’s Prior? Two things I think for me on reflection, firstly that he is so engaging that he pulls the audience into Prior’s world and secondly, he is so full of hope. Garfield’s Prior revised that- there’s so much hope there and I’m convinced that everything worked out. And before that Garfield pulled me so fully into Prior’s story- usually I watch Angels with a brain that’s firing across so many channels, politics, religion, real life characters, morality, following everyone’s story at once. But , Garfield  grounds this production. The whole narrative really rests on the pillars of Prior and Harper and here they are a ‘dream team’ to anchor that narrative. All the other stuff still happens and still seeps into the brain, but it’s weighted in these two stories- on one side held down and pulled together by Garfield. There’s a cleverness to the performance, you see him being very funny, you see him cry and reach points of hysteria. There are moments you can pull apart and say, ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’ but actually like the play itself his performance is the sum of its parts not each individual scene. Take any part alone and it doesn’t necessarily work. Maybe he doesn’t need to scream so loudly, maybe he doesn’t need to be quite as camp and bitchy on that line or this. But it works as the sum of its parts. It works because there is a thought process, a reason and reasoning behind it. But it also works because it works in the narrative. It works as the character. When Prior’s story reaches its conclusion it works, and it’s one of those ineffable things within theatre that at that point you can’t quite figure out why it works it just does.
But more important than that, it works because you leave the theatre with hope. The Epilogue, the invocation to the audience that he delivers is filled with such sincerity and hope that I do wonder at what point in that, in a suitably Brechtian manner, Andrew Garfield the actor starts to seep back into Prior Walter-  it’s a fittingly hopeful thought that as Prior reaches that point of letting go and turning things over to the audience that the character lets go of the actor and those words come from both.
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Cast Notes: James McArdle/Louis

Ah Louis. Ah James. Where to start? How do you start with an actor who essentially re-writes what it is to be the most difficult roles in the play? What I actually started with was a blog about how hard this was to write, and my personal relationship with Louis which is here. Short version I love, and am a bit in love with this messed up jumper wearing mess of a man, and for me he’s always been the heart of the play. In this version what James McArdle did was at once wonderful and heart stoppingly difficult to watch. 
Louis for me then, is also the most important character in the play- he divides people. He’s a brave character for Kushner to write- he was Kushner’s response to the ‘assumption’ that people went from ‘disco bunnies to Florence Nightingale’, the idea that everyone is naturally able to care for sick loved ones, and that everyone copes. And for young men unused to caring responsibilities, that was often a big ask. Louis as written doesn’t ever act out of malice, selfishness sure, immaturity, definitely and fear most of all.  He’s overbearing, overwrought but he gets unfairly labelled as cruel, unfeeling when in fact Louis’ problem is exactly the opposite- he feels far too much about everything and doesn’t know what to do with it. There’s a little bit of Louis in all us-whether it’s the neurotic insecure side, the side that has a mouth that runs away from them or frequently a foot in it, and the side that doesn’t hold up under pressure. But more terrifying perhaps for some audiences that Louis, in McArdle’s hands becomes very relatable, and understandable. And that is the skill that McArdle makes that decision honest, real and awfully relatable, deep down that if we all took a long hard honest look at ourselves, there are very few of us who don’t understand why Louis does what he does.
McArdle builds Louis again from the ground up. I find his version of the character at once unrecognisable from anything else I’ve seen but also the very essence of what I feel like I’ve been banging on about regarding Louis for ten years or more. Louis is a very vulnerable, insecure and complicated character. His actions are terrible, he isn’t, another mistake to make is the idea that he doesn’t or never really loved Prior. His love for Prior is utterly, devastatingly at the heart of what he does. Everything he does stems from that- at the start of the play he’s a young man who hasn’t worked out a lot of his place in the world. McArdle himself has said that through what happens he works out what it is to love and what it is to be a man. And that’s the crux of him in many ways, he’s figuring out life, just as life falls apart- and so does he.
He said that for Louis, Prior is his ‘Goddess’ and that sense of sheer worship and an overwhelming love for him still comes through in everything he does. There’s a sense in terms of their wider relationship of him not quite believing his luck- to him Prior is this shinning beautiful being that he’s somehow ended up with and he’s not sure how. He plays the insecurity of that but also the overwhelming nature of it. He seems to be playing the first great love of Louis’ life (given they got together when he was probably 27 this seems logical) and possibly (in my own theories anyway) the only great love of his life. And for a young man, a young Gay man, that as much as ensuing events seem to overwhelm him- and Louis is a man easily overwhelmed. McArdle plays his love for Prior with a puppy-dog sweetness and a vulnerability, that we don’t see from Garfield’s Prior as easily. But Garfield is playing a Prior with defences sky-high because of the situation they’re whereas McArdle plays Louis with everything crumbling. Louis as written can read as hard, spiky full of politics and anger and not a lot else. But that isn’t the Louis we meet in this production, this Louis is a young man desperately in love and desperately scared of life, the world and what it is throwing at him.  McArdle’s playing Louis’ insecurities as in part borne out of a sheer overwhelming kind of fear of the love he’s found himself embroiled in with Prior. The way it comes over is that Louis isn’t quite dealing with this idea of a big love, a real relationship anyway, but it’s easy enough to carry on when everything is fine. When something big comes along- as Prior says- he can’t handle it. He’s a young man struggling with what it means to be a man, and what it means to love. It’s a simple thing, that normally young men get to work out with little harm than a broken heart or two. It’s unfortunate for Louis that the reason it falls apart is more serious than that.  But I never doubt for a second through McArdle’s version that he utterly loves Prior.
A credit also to the costume department for ‘designing’ a Louis that fits around McArdle’s incarnation- he’s scruffy and rumpled. None of his clothes fit properly, and have all seen better days (except perhaps the Tux for ‘spectral’ Louis) The battered trainers he wears everywhere including to work are a nice touch in that- Louis is nowhere near getting himself together in any way shape or form and his attire everywhere from his Grandmother’s funeral, to work to everyday casual is indistinguishable. It reflects a few things- the not-particularly well-off office temp, the young guy who hasn’t discovered a sense of style, and the cerebral nerdy guy who has never really thought of that side of things. Next to Prior and Belize’s fabulous ‘put-together’ looks, or Joe’s buttoned up straight-man look, it’s an important distinction personality wise, and within the gay community- where looks tell a lot about a person. Again, we look at Louis, as he probably does himself, and wonder how such a fabulous Queen as Prior ends up with the scruffy looking boy. It’s a great touch, and the scruffy yet soft look reflects perfectly McArdle’s take on him. Despite all that he does there are no hard edges, and much like his oversized clothes he often feels like a little boy lost in some else’s world.  
And maybe at the start he’s a bit lost in Prior’s world. But McArdle is clearly playing a Louis who is devastatingly in love with Prior. Their first scene plays out some of the parameters of their ‘normal’ relationship- the only sort of glimpse we get into it before Prior’s news rips into what they know. When Prior bitches about the cat at Louis, McArdle plays it with a well-worn resignation of this is how their relationship goes. A slight sense of the power-play of their relationship at work- Louis’ need to be right offset slightly by the fact Prior is clearly in charge of this- and we later learn-probably many a debate but playing it, as affable and endearing McArdle creates a charm to Louis that will also be integral to the other side of his coin- the political animal- but in the relationship, even when goading Prior to debate, he’s sweet and funny.
We see this again in their scene in bed together when McArdle delivers Louis’ speeches on Justice are again, sweet endearing Garfield plays Prior as the boyfriend who enjoys winding up his easily led partner. The picture they create-sat in bed, with smaller, slighter Garfield curled up against McArdle- physically larger and stronger it’s a great momentary image of a Louis that could be- the one that is there steadfast and strong and supporting (literally in the staging) his boyfriend. The taller, heavier set McAdle with the slighter more delicate looking Garfield curled up against him makes Louis look like someone who in another life would have protected his vulnerable other half to the death. And that’s a good image, considering things to come.  A very tactile scene, Garfield is curled around McArdle who ‘pets’ (for want of a better description) him throughout the scene-they’re rarely not touching. And there’s a look from McArdle, that Louis when watching Prior is somewhere between territorial and in awe. It’s an incredibly sweet scene and one that shows aspects of the relationship, dynamics clearly worked out between the two- from whose side of the bed is which (and why they’re in the ‘wrong’ side to begin with). But above all things, the end to that scene shows the heart of McArdle’s Louis and the heart of why what he does gives us so much more of him.
 After Prior has given his latest litany of bad news, Louis begins to fall apart again. Scared of what is to come, scared for Prior. The lines themselves can be read as cold, unfeeling, selfish. He asks the very worst thing a person could ‘what if I walked out on this’. And it’s still a terrible thing to say, there’s no letting Louis off on that one, but in McArdle’s hands it comes from a place of absolute fear. The moment when he leaps down the bed to embrace Prior fiercely from behind has this sense of raw urgency to it, particularly as he clings on as if for dear life of them both.  Much is made of Louis’ actions in the play- and rightly so. But what McArdle teaches us about Louis is the humanity with which we need to view what he’s going through. He has managed to capture with a real empathy, what a person goes through when a loved one is (potentially) dying. For his Louis it starts innocently enough, in not being able to cope with the news itself.
The scene on the bench really encapsulates their relationship- bickering which covers a deep-seated love and affection on both sides. A well-worn established relationship, couched in domesticity. The conversation that rips apart Louis’ world comes out of nowhere, out of an ordinary not-quite-fight over the cat. And it comes off the back of his Grandmother’s funeral. It can be played understated, but I think McArdle’s reaction- the great heaving sobs and the inability to contain that wave of shock and grief pitches right- not everyone would react that way, but Louis, one who cries too easily, is prone to hyperbole would. It blindsides him and he has no time to prepare a reaction and McArdle gives us that, raw and honest. When he hears this news, and when he finds Prior on the floor covered in blood. The screams and sobs he gives out in that moment are frighteningly accurate for anyone who has ever come across a loved one in any kind of state like that. The raw grief of those two moments tell us so much about McArdle’s understanding of Louis’ reactions. It’s one of fear and love.  
His crying obviously is a feature of the play McArdle taking the line ‘I cry way too easily’ at its word. Perhaps if I’m, a little too much at times though it works as an excellent punchline when he seems to realise this fact- mid-cry in fact, there is something to be said for holding it back a little for the moments that matter. But that his Louis cries as frequently out of anger as grief is incredibly humanising. It might be Garfield that does pretty-crier better but in McArdle’s hands tears are something of a deadly acting weapon. His tears of frustration when Belize challenges him about Joe are all too real too. He plays that sense of overwhelming frustration that results in tears that the criers among us will all recognise. 
Underneath that physical/emotional tic there’s also an element of the brewing constant emotional battle that goes on underneath. Another example being the scene with Joe in the toilet which is beautifully played. Who among us hasn’t done that thing of sobbing our heart out in the work toilet only to pull it together when a colleague walks in and pretend everything is fine (while snot runs down our face). He does a perfect switch flicking moment there, distracting himself with Joe while half his brain is still clearly sobbing over that sink. We also see a little of sassy, fun Louis as well. It’s a perfect response once again to that ‘rabbit in headlines’ moment of being caught vulnerable like that, to flip instead to funny and flirty. And in an instance, we get a moment of the other Louis, the one before all this and perhaps the version of him that Prior fell for as Joe starts to. 
It’s easy to dismiss what Louis does as cold, unfeeling but McArdle shows us just the depth of the feeling. His ‘failing in love’ is indeed a failing, of himself, of action, but it’s far from unfeeling. And when he tells Prior he is bruised inside, he means it. The emotions that mostly come out in tears from Louis reflect the depth of his feeling for everything- that is his failing, really, the over-feeling of everything, from anger at politics to his love for Prior to his inability to deal with his illness. All of it is consuming and overwhelming- and so he cries way too easily.
Away from Prior directly there are two scenes for Louis that are mountains for an actor to climb- the ‘Angels in America’ scene and the ‘Have you no decency’ scene. Fairly similar scenes in that they are Louis using politics and philosophy to direct and deflect personal feeling. But McArdle plays them so contrastingly we get a real insight into Louis. Angels in America which is essentially a 15-minute monologue from Louis, is cleverly constructed and directed here to be a dialogue without Belize having many lines. As noted in the comments on Nathan Stewart-Jarret he turns the monologue into a dialogue but some brilliantly timed non-verbal acting and this helps McArdle fly with that scene. It’s a speech that could be dry and offensive and frankly dull if delivered wrongly. It’s shorter in the film version, probably with good reason. But McArdle makes it one of the funniest scenes in the play. Becoming at once that friend we all have and the friend we’ve all been in full flight of rant, he embodies the comments section on a blog post or Guardian article. The skill however, in sounding like this nonsense is this minute occurring to him is an incredible thing to watch. It’s also an infuriating thing about his performance- McArdle has affected a halting-half stutter to his speech patterns as Louis, punctuating much of what he says- particularly in these long speeches with pauses, um and hesitations. So convincing is he that there were times I seriously worried he’d forgotten his lines (I’m sure this particular approach came in useful early on where there was a distinct possibility this had happened). He halts he wavers, he stops mid-thought and seems to turn around, back up or go in a different direction. It’s an utter masterclass in making the speech sound as if he’s just thought of it. Oh, and he also sounds a little like Kushner himself. Make of that what you will…
The importance of how he plays the ‘Angels in America’ scene is that he makes Louis funny, endearing and in that relatable in that moment. And that with it he conveys why Louis is like he is-indeed why he has spent 20 minutes talking about politics. And what he doesn’t talk about. Firstly, if you don’t make Louis likeable at this point as an actor you’re digging a hole for your character that it’s impossible to dig out of- the audience is already against Louis, if you bore them for 20 minutes they aren’t going to come back. McArdle has already won half that battle in that his Louis is infinitely more likeable than many, but it’s still a risk that played wrong this scene can tip people over. What works is that McArdle doesn’t rest on the words or the theories Louis says- but why he’s saying any of it to begin with. He’s saying everything that comes into his head the moment it does, to avoid talking about the one thing he can’t- Prior. And as much as these ramblings do come from the depths of Louis’ political mind somewhere, McArdle plays it as if his mind is a runaway train, talking about anything, everything else but the thing looming large at the front of his mind. Again, pulling it back to the love and depth of emotion for Prior- and that he can’t actually deal with it. If I’m offering notes/thoughts I’d say for all that he plays it too funny, too nice. There is a slightly viscous undertone to Louis’ politics- a defence mechanism at work in which being the cleverest in the room is a way to ‘win’ and when he does that it shows a different side of his vulnerability. His game of one-upmanship on Belize, which stems from a rivalry for Prior’s attention or affections, is a part of this long-winded rant, and it’s a balance of a need for ‘victory’ and a need to deflect anything and everything in the ‘real world’ by way of politics. McArdle gets that and it’s a joy to watch. 
The absolute tour-de-force of McArdle’s performance is the ‘Have you no decency’ scene. Arguably one of the best scenes written in modern drama, McArdle runs at it and rips it apart, it’s utterly exhausting to witness and Russell Tovey almost runs to catch up behind him for the entire scene. This scene embodies Kushner’s personal/political dialogue, which of course is so often distilled into Louis. It’s a masterclass in a slow burn of a scene. McArdle’s Louis is already burning with anger at Joe when he arrives, but it’s quietly contained to the point that Joe doesn’t notice, and gives Tovey a chance to continue playing the innocence of a naïve Joe. From his cool ‘You’re in’ almost a little resigned to the fact this is a fight he’s going to have- for all Louis’ bluster McArdle plays him as conflict averse and there’s a hesitance to fully unleash the rage he’s feeling that holds him back in this scene and makes the anger he builds to even more forceful. What he plays on for most of the scene is the man driven mad by what he loves- in every sense. He’s rumpled, dishevelled from two days holed up researching and plotting his confrontation. When he delivers the first ‘Have you no decency?’ it’s unmistakably the tone of a betrayed lover confronting the cheating party. He delivers is lying down, not looking in Joe’s direction, and he stays there. His feigned indifference to Joe himself, makes him almost cat-like luring his soon to be ex-lover in and placing him exactly where he wants him.
McArdle plays a lot of Louis’ insecurities up in his performance, and the manifest physically, but here he switches this almost entirely.  
Physicality has been a key element of how McArdle’s Louis relates to other character- he’s bigger and seems physically stronger than Prior, their relative sizes add a certain dynamic to their relationship. While to Joe, while better matched in height and stature, Tovey’s Joe is clearly physically stronger. But in this scene McArdle squares up to him face on, and blocks him. It’s a confident and dominant gesture, and you believe that he’d go through with the threat of violence at that moment (is that the Glasgow in him?). But he also plays it as visibility and physically repulsed by Joe, well matched physically it also comes off as both frightening and faintly ridiculous at once. Grown men fighting but without real intent to hurt each other, there’s still a lingering sexual tension and a desire to exorcise something but not really to hurt one another. McArdle plays it- I struggle with ‘child-like’ but it is like when a toddler isn’t getting his way and resorts to physical means, Joe isn’t listening so he physically pulls him back to where he wants him to make him- or try to make him. He maneuverers him into place and then his pushes and shoves become like a wordless expression of the exasperation he’s feeling. Most importantly, there’s never any real desire to hurt Joe physically. It’s Joe’s temper that snaps first and he lands a punch with violence and it’s shocking. And whatever in the broader sense we feel about Louis’ behaviour in that moment he doesn’t deserve it, and McArdle gives us a knowing expression that says simply ‘this confirms everything I thought about you’ it’s dark and dangerous and is McArdle’s perfect punctuation to the scene.
This scene really demonstrates McArdle’s understanding of how Louis’ mind works- the parallel lines of politics and personal finally merge and he delivers it with fire and precision. All along Louis’ political and philosophical rantings act as a mask to deflect personal feelings or insecurities. McArdle has said that what Louis goes through teaches him about love, and about being a man. Louis goes through everything he goes through, does what he does both for love, and because he’s not yet sure what it means to be a man (or an adult). When he says the Kaddish for Roy he says, ‘I’m 32 years old and I’ve never been in a room with a dead body’ and although he says it flippantly (and pokes Roy’s face) this is the watershed moment for Louis, being in the room with a dead body, finding forgiveness which his immature self perhaps would stubbornly dig his heels in a rile against, something happens to Louis in that moment and that’s the ‘journey’ for him McArdle articulates so clearly. 
And what of Louis in the Epilogue?  A brilliant level of detail in his costume tells us something of where this version of Louis might be. Wearing ‘proper’ shoes for the first time for a start, and a shirt and trousers that are smart, appear newer and fit, and a smart coat, again that fits. The message seems clear that Louis has got himself together in those five years. McArdle plays him confidently in the Epilogue, with a self-assurance that is missing earlier, and ease in his skin that we previously don’t see. Some interesting body language around Belize and Prior lends itself to numerus theories of those years, and beyond. Notably the night McArdle and Stewart-Jarret started a play-fight in the background during the epilogue. But most of all there’s that quiet ease that leaves you feeling, whatever the ‘theory’ around Louis’ own life things seem peaceful, settled and he is at ease with wherever or whoever he might be.
I call this ‘James McArdle deliberately disproves my point by not dressing properly at the curtain call’ 
Having covered a lot of ground here on McArdle it feels like a barely scratching of the surface. That’s because there is simply that much going on with him. Louis is probably the most difficult and complex character in the play. McArdle gets under the skin of Louis in a way that hasn’t been done before. He’s utterly different and yet at the heart of Louis as written. He’s also an actor with an eye for the details, and there are probably hundreds of little gestures of brilliance across the performance. But he’s also an actor with an eye for the bigger picture, and this is a Louis we we see evolve and grow and even if he’s not fully realised at the end, that’s really the beauty of McArdle’s interpretation- not everyone is left fully changed so visibly. Perhaps some audiences need to see Louis as a real terrible person, to believe he does it out of selfishness or spite, perhaps that’s the only way they can reconcile the part of themselves that understands. But as an actor McArdle seems to have fully reconciled that part of him, in order to play him this sympathetically I think you have to really feel that understanding of why Louis does what he does. And in McArdle’s Louis that does all stem from his frightening somewhat overwhelming love of Prior. And the very real fear that comes with dealing with the reality of life and death for the first time that happens to come along with his love.
Much like Louis I could talk for days about McArdle’s version. I could praise and pick apart almost any gesutre. I’m dying to know how he got to that place as an actor and what he thinks of the character. He’s created something new and something so familiar and even months on I’m utterly fascinated. I’ve strayed away from making judgement of ‘ranking’ on ‘my’ actors here, but if you’re asking me (nobody is) James McArdle is the one that deserves all the awards in this ensemble. And if I continue living with this play for another 10 or 20 years I won’t see a better Louis. And as I said in my other blog, I have a lot of gratitude for what he did on stage too- on a personal note it’s rare something you know that well can move you that much, and still change you so much. Bloody James McArdle, you managed it.