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.