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.

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.

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.

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.

Louis and Me…

I’ve spent a long time writing the blog posts about Andrew Garfield and James McArdle’s portrayal of Prior and Louis. They’ve taken an age because they’re long and there’s a lot to say. But I really struggled with Louis. I struggled because I realised James McArdle’s performance had really tapped into some personal things around Louis for me. It’s a really difficult thing to articulate when an actor gets so deeply to the heart of a character you feel both an affinity for and a great love for. And even now there is something deeply visceral about what his version of the character did to me and for me that I can’t quite articulate. But in trying to work that out I thought it was time to talk honestly about what Louis means to me, and why he’s so important to me in the play.
I am Louis, and Louis has always been where my heart lays in this play. It’s more complex than this perhaps, but while Prior is at the heart of the play no doubt, it’s Louis for me that’s always driven it. And on a basic level of analysing the play McArdle’s interpretation makes me simply want to shout ‘THAT, THAT IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT.’ He builds Louis again from the ground up and comes at him with the attitude of an actor who is making no judgment about the character- which is really the only way to play him, and understand him. His Louis is softer, and as many have said more understandable. But I think that’s because McArdle understands him too. For an actor approaching the role it’s too easy to look at what Louis does, combine that with the political rantings, and come out with a cold, uncaring version of the character. McArdle gives us the opposite- a Louis who cares so much he falls apart.
But still Louis is a character who causes a lot of division. There’s a bit of a sense of ‘Team Louis’ and ‘Team Prior’ perhaps, and a sense that you can’t ever see both sides, you fall with one or the other. Perhaps Kushner has given us two sides of a coin to argue for infinity. I will always fall on Louis’ side, although I feel desperately for Prior. Because I simply feel a part of Louis.
Why Louis then? People ask ‘Why this play?’ ask me ‘why spend so much of your life on it?’ or ‘what is it about it?’ often.  The answer now is ‘many things’ and ‘too many to mention’ I’ve fallen in love with the play (and out of love) so many times I can’t remember anymore, or pull out one thing. But actually the thing that drew me in initially was Louis, an at the time inexplicable pull towards him.  
I tell the story of finding Angels often. I lived in Canada, we had no TV but we’d rent DVDs from the Dollar movie store around the corner. The part I don’t tell often (and this goes for my discovery of Rent around that time) is that at that point my Father was either dying or had just died. I’m a little fuzzy on the exact timelines but finding this play (and Rent) fell around then. The part I leave out, but is at least implicit, was I’d run away too.
It’s fitting that I’m getting to writing this today, which is Canadian Thanksgiving. My memories of the period are so fuzzy in fact, and I am such a terrible Louis-like person that I don’t know the exact date he died. I do know it was Canadian Thanksgiving that weekend. So that’s the marker in my brain. (This was 2004 for anyone interested in chronology). I’d lived there for three months and done a pretty effective Louis-ing of hiding away and being slightly oblivious to the reality I’d left behind. It wasn’t entirely as deliberate or conscious as Louis. I was there to study, and with my parent’s blessing. But I’d still run, I was still (like Prior) ‘Dancing as fast as I can’. My ‘Louis’ part of this is that I both wanted to go, and wasn’t coping particularly well. In my defence I was 20 years old, and coping with a life in a foreign country, and the death of a parent. But let’s just say I didn’t handle it well.
So that, like Louis is my dirty little secret about it. I rarely say it because people find it difficult to understand but I understand because in my own way I did it. I was young, unable to cope with the reality of someone I was close to dying. And so I ran.
When people call Louis cold, or a terrible person it really does cut to the core of me. Because he’s not. It doesn’t mean what he did was right, but humans don’t act in the right way all the time, a lot of the time. Not all of us hold up well under pressure. Not all of us are emotionally equipped to deal with everything life throws at us.
Later, in relationships, I admit I didn’t deal well with illness again. When I partner was suffering with mental health issues, I wasn’t good, I didn’t cope well and in part it drove us apart. And I was again ready to run. I was younger, I was more ignorant of these issues. And frankly I was (and am) dealing with my own mental health issues. These aren’t excuses, like Louis I’m not excusable in my inability to cope. But they are reasons. And they are things I understand about him. We aren’t all built that way, we aren’t all wired that way.  And what of sexuality in Louis? It’s not something we talk about as we do with Joe. But I believe Louis struggled with his sexuality more than the self- assured ‘Queens’ Prior and Belize.  His quips about his parents being disappointed, his previous ‘sleeping around’ his self-destructive relationship with Joe. We don’t talk about the potential for internalised homophobia but we should. Louis is at times uncomfortable in his own skin. And I admit I’ve felt the same about my own sexuality. I feel his awkwardness in me too.
And yes, I see a lot of myself in Louis. Not just ‘the boy who ran away’ but the boy who is confused, a bit lost. The boy who gives a 20-minute political monologue rather than address his true feelings. The boy who is just so angry at everything in the world because he can’t address the real issues within himself. Some of us are Prior, some of us fight in the face of the worst possible adversary. Some of us are Belize, cool and calm and oh so together in life. Some of us are Harper, managing to rebuild ourselves out of dust and ashes. And some of us are Louis-we fall apart and it takes us a long while to put ourselves back together again. 
But Louis isn’t without redeeming qualities. He loves, and acts fiercely and with conviction. And I’m proud to see that trait in myself too. I feel everything at extremes (yes, I too cry way too easily). I throw myself at the things I believe in with passion and an almost blind conviction (as well, this blog might well indicate). I’m knowledgeable to the extreme on the things I love and will share that information (others might not see that as the greatest trait thinking about it…). And I also love with loyalty and dedication. In all that he does Louis loves Prior completely, and I share that ‘all in’ attitude as well.
Seeing the play this time was surprisingly emotional on realising that I’m now the same age as Louis. More so than I’d anticipated. Perhaps because I still find myself very much in Louis’ position – the office temp, a bit directionless, a bit friendless at times, a disaster when it comes to relationships. Basically, just being a person who hasn’t quite got their shit together yet. In some respects, the Louis of the Epilogue, in this version of it, gives me hope for 37, because that Louis did seem like a man who finally did have his shit together. So, we live in hope. So maybe come back to me in five years and see?
I get fiercely defensive of ‘my’ Louis, as a character and now of McArdle’s interpretation of him. For the character I ask honestly of anyone who loathes him, or accuses him of being a terrible person (there’s a difference in doing terrible things to being terrible) I ask, have you been there? Do you know how you’d cope? And can you not understand that not everyone does, or can handle things in the same or ‘correct’ way. And maybe this blog and admitting these things will make people dislike me as passionately as they do Louis. But maybe it’ll also help them understand. 
The reason I found it difficult to articulate my feelings on McArdle’s performance is that he gave me everything I’ve had in my head about this character for 10 years or more. All the things I thought only I was seeing about him, he brought out. And it’s wonderful, but also heart-searingly painful to watch, and live through again and again. He gave me things about Louis I didn’t know existed, and things that I was forced to reflect on myself again. He gave me a love for the character and an increasingly complicated ‘I feel like this character but I’m also in love with this character’ type feeling.  Louis has been a part of my heart for as long as I’ve loved this play. And quite simply James McArdle gave me a version of him that I’d been waiting for, he made real everything I almost thought I’d imagined about the character. Like having a part of you ripped out but also put back together at the same time. I’d kind of like to thank him for that.

Louis and Me…

I’ve spent a long time writing the blog posts about Andrew Garfield and James McArdle’s portrayal of Prior and Louis. They’ve taken an age because they’re long and there’s a lot to say. But I really struggled with Louis. I struggled because I realised James McArdle’s performance had really tapped into some personal things around Louis for me. It’s a really difficult thing to articulate when an actor gets so deeply to the heart of a character you feel both an affinity for and a great love for. And even now there is something deeply visceral about what his version of the character did to me and for me that I can’t quite articulate. But in trying to work that out I thought it was time to talk honestly about what Louis means to me, and why he’s so important to me in the play.
I am Louis, and Louis has always been where my heart lays in this play. It’s more complex than this perhaps, but while Prior is at the heart of the play no doubt, it’s Louis for me that’s always driven it. And on a basic level of analysing the play McArdle’s interpretation makes me simply want to shout ‘THAT, THAT IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT.’ He builds Louis again from the ground up and comes at him with the attitude of an actor who is making no judgment about the character- which is really the only way to play him, and understand him. His Louis is softer, and as many have said more understandable. But I think that’s because McArdle understands him too. For an actor approaching the role it’s too easy to look at what Louis does, combine that with the political rantings, and come out with a cold, uncaring version of the character. McArdle gives us the opposite- a Louis who cares so much he falls apart.
But still Louis is a character who causes a lot of division. There’s a bit of a sense of ‘Team Louis’ and ‘Team Prior’ perhaps, and a sense that you can’t ever see both sides, you fall with one or the other. Perhaps Kushner has given us two sides of a coin to argue for infinity. I will always fall on Louis’ side, although I feel desperately for Prior. Because I simply feel a part of Louis.
Why Louis then? People ask ‘Why this play?’ ask me ‘why spend so much of your life on it?’ or ‘what is it about it?’ often.  The answer now is ‘many things’ and ‘too many to mention’ I’ve fallen in love with the play (and out of love) so many times I can’t remember anymore, or pull out one thing. But actually the thing that drew me in initially was Louis, an at the time inexplicable pull towards him.  
I tell the story of finding Angels often. I lived in Canada, we had no TV but we’d rent DVDs from the Dollar movie store around the corner. The part I don’t tell often (and this goes for my discovery of Rent around that time) is that at that point my Father was either dying or had just died. I’m a little fuzzy on the exact timelines but finding this play (and Rent) fell around then. The part I leave out, but is at least implicit, was I’d run away too.
It’s fitting that I’m getting to writing this today, which is Canadian Thanksgiving. My memories of the period are so fuzzy in fact, and I am such a terrible Louis-like person that I don’t know the exact date he died. I do know it was Canadian Thanksgiving that weekend. So that’s the marker in my brain. (This was 2004 for anyone interested in chronology). I’d lived there for three months and done a pretty effective Louis-ing of hiding away and being slightly oblivious to the reality I’d left behind. It wasn’t entirely as deliberate or conscious as Louis. I was there to study, and with my parent’s blessing. But I’d still run, I was still (like Prior) ‘Dancing as fast as I can’. My ‘Louis’ part of this is that I both wanted to go, and wasn’t coping particularly well. In my defence I was 20 years old, and coping with a life in a foreign country, and the death of a parent. But let’s just say I didn’t handle it well.
So that, like Louis is my dirty little secret about it. I rarely say it because people find it difficult to understand but I understand because in my own way I did it. I was young, unable to cope with the reality of someone I was close to dying. And so I ran.
When people call Louis cold, or a terrible person it really does cut to the core of me. Because he’s not. It doesn’t mean what he did was right, but humans don’t act in the right way all the time, a lot of the time. Not all of us hold up well under pressure. Not all of us are emotionally equipped to deal with everything life throws at us.
Later, in relationships, I admit I didn’t deal well with illness again. When I partner was suffering with mental health issues, I wasn’t good, I didn’t cope well and in part it drove us apart. And I was again ready to run. I was younger, I was more ignorant of these issues. And frankly I was (and am) dealing with my own mental health issues. These aren’t excuses, like Louis I’m not excusable in my inability to cope. But they are reasons. And they are things I understand about him. We aren’t all built that way, we aren’t all wired that way.  And what of sexuality in Louis? It’s not something we talk about as we do with Joe. But I believe Louis struggled with his sexuality more than the self- assured ‘Queens’ Prior and Belize.  His quips about his parents being disappointed, his previous ‘sleeping around’ his self-destructive relationship with Joe. We don’t talk about the potential for internalised homophobia but we should. Louis is at times uncomfortable in his own skin. And I admit I’ve felt the same about my own sexuality. I feel his awkwardness in me too.
And yes, I see a lot of myself in Louis. Not just ‘the boy who ran away’ but the boy who is confused, a bit lost. The boy who gives a 20-minute political monologue rather than address his true feelings. The boy who is just so angry at everything in the world because he can’t address the real issues within himself. Some of us are Prior, some of us fight in the face of the worst possible adversary. Some of us are Belize, cool and calm and oh so together in life. Some of us are Harper, managing to rebuild ourselves out of dust and ashes. And some of us are Louis-we fall apart and it takes us a long while to put ourselves back together again. 
But Louis isn’t without redeeming qualities. He loves, and acts fiercely and with conviction. And I’m proud to see that trait in myself too. I feel everything at extremes (yes, I too cry way too easily). I throw myself at the things I believe in with passion and an almost blind conviction (as well, this blog might well indicate). I’m knowledgeable to the extreme on the things I love and will share that information (others might not see that as the greatest trait thinking about it…). And I also love with loyalty and dedication. In all that he does Louis loves Prior completely, and I share that ‘all in’ attitude as well.
Seeing the play this time was surprisingly emotional on realising that I’m now the same age as Louis. More so than I’d anticipated. Perhaps because I still find myself very much in Louis’ position – the office temp, a bit directionless, a bit friendless at times, a disaster when it comes to relationships. Basically, just being a person who hasn’t quite got their shit together yet. In some respects, the Louis of the Epilogue, in this version of it, gives me hope for 37, because that Louis did seem like a man who finally did have his shit together. So, we live in hope. So maybe come back to me in five years and see?
I get fiercely defensive of ‘my’ Louis, as a character and now of McArdle’s interpretation of him. For the character I ask honestly of anyone who loathes him, or accuses him of being a terrible person (there’s a difference in doing terrible things to being terrible) I ask, have you been there? Do you know how you’d cope? And can you not understand that not everyone does, or can handle things in the same or ‘correct’ way. And maybe this blog and admitting these things will make people dislike me as passionately as they do Louis. But maybe it’ll also help them understand. 
The reason I found it difficult to articulate my feelings on McArdle’s performance is that he gave me everything I’ve had in my head about this character for 10 years or more. All the things I thought only I was seeing about him, he brought out. And it’s wonderful, but also heart-searingly painful to watch, and live through again and again. He gave me things about Louis I didn’t know existed, and things that I was forced to reflect on myself again. He gave me a love for the character and an increasingly complicated ‘I feel like this character but I’m also in love with this character’ type feeling.  Louis has been a part of my heart for as long as I’ve loved this play. And quite simply James McArdle gave me a version of him that I’d been waiting for, he made real everything I almost thought I’d imagined about the character. Like having a part of you ripped out but also put back together at the same time. I’d kind of like to thank him for that.

Why Elliott & Harper is the company I’ve been waiting for

 I can never resist a good (bad) pun in a title. As the first production from Elliott & Harper opens its doors for previews tonight, it’s worth pausing to think what this new production company means and why indeed we need more like it. Something of a ‘power house’ company formed of Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper. Both coming from the National Theatre- as Director and Producer respectively- there’s a real understanding of both the craft of theatre and the audiences that do- and don’t- come to it there. And theatre made by and produced by theatre people, in the commercial realm. That’s potentially very exciting.

Firstly, the act of two theatre people who really love theatre, really understand theatre both from an audience point of view and an artistic point of view. Secondly, one of the UK’s best directors striking out on her own to make theatre on her own terms. Thirdly, and you bet it’s an important factor, a woman artistic director. It’s all exciting, and has the potential, we already know to produce exciting work. A company that is starting with a new Simon Stephens play starring Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham is obviously a pretty strong start. When your second play is a radically re-imagined Company, with Rosalie Craig in the starring role, and a small matter of Patti LuPone also starring. Even in the most unforgiving critic’s eyes that’s a bold and strong start.
Why then is Elliott & Harper both such a good idea and an important one for theatre? Firstly, then theatre people making theatre. As loathe as some critics are to admit it, we do have a lot of great theatre happening in London and beyond (and can we pause to note that already Elliot& Harper are working beyond London with their collaboration with West Yorkshire playhouse, this gives me great hope for a regional outlook in the future) The London fringes, subsidised sector and indeed a lot of regional work are brilliant, daring and pushing boundaries and audiences to the limits. And that is wonderful work. I love the West End, I love a big musical and a classic play. I even firmly believe there’s a place for Mama Mia in this world, but what we need is a balance.  Theatre that challenges audiences, gives something new, twists those classics but is also accessible to casual and seasoned theatre goers alike.
And you know what, I think Elliott Harper are the ones to brings us that. Theatre people who understand both theatre as a craft, and audiences. That’s what our theatre needs an intelligent alliance at the head of a production company, one that understands and wants to challenge but excite audiences. The Harper in ‘Elliott&Harper’ will drive a production company that’s business savvy, but also doesn’t lose sight of the- at the risk of sounding artsy, and yes, a bit wanky- the art in theatre. We have a lot of business savvy producers, and we have business savvy producers who do I’m sure care about the work. But I fear a lot of them have lost touch with that. In a difficult market, when a proven commodity or safe bet is easier it feels like ‘why?’ is a question only answered by ‘money’. We need money in theatre, we all know that but a producer relationship with an artistic director that drives that question ‘Why?’ with a more complicated answer is far better for us all in the theatrical world. And having a director like Elliott then answering those questions for you with the productions is possibly a recipe for theatrical gold in every sense.
Elliott’s directing work has always been both risk taking and accessible. Proof that you don’t have to alienate an audience to challenge them, that you can be bold to engage an audience not put them off. Proof also that visuals and spectacle and turning theatre on its head work only when engaged with the heart of the matter: human storytelling. The National, where Elliott &Harper have both honed their craft, is as a rule good at this kind of risk taking. Of pushing boundaries with form or taking a risk on the kinds of stories told.  Any of Elliott’s ‘big hits’ could have ended in disaster, and in interviews she’s far too modest to say so, but in other hands they likely would have. From the ‘let’s tell this children’s story but with puppets, giant horse puppets’ to the Scottish fairy tale with a floating princess and Tori Amos music, to the inside of an Autistic boy’s mind to, yes, Angels crashing through ceilings. These were pushing theatrical boundaries in one way or another. But in their final execution were so well put together that it becomes almost too easy to forget that element. As a personal example, the most vicious argument I had with my PhD supervisor was about War Horse as an innovative piece of theatrical storytelling, because it’s so easy to miss just how clever, innovative and important it was. (Given my PhD itself was 3 years of arguing that Angels in Americais an important theatrical work I can’t help but be amused, and wonder if I could now persuade Elliott to shout at my supervisor for me)
Honestly I think I’ll go to my grave arguing about this damn horse. 
Elliott’s work is big and risk taking, but the thing that always guides it back is an innate instinct at her heart as a director for stories. That she’s also one of the most conscientious and through directors working today also helps. Too many productions seem a little ‘thrown together’ a ‘best fit’ or ‘will do’ which leaves glaring gaps obvious to, and ultimately off putting and insulting to audiences. Not in Elliott’s work- no research stone, or exploration of staging or performance seems unturned until it fits together. The work always feels like it gives credit to the audience’s intelligence and investment, and repays that with a sense of authenticity to the work.
Known for big storytelling, and big visuals- from Angels crashing to Rosalie Craig floating for an entire performance, to yes, those horses again. But what perhaps goes unnoticed in the bigger picture is that all of Elliott’s work is at its heart about people, the human stories. And that’s what makes her directing not just good, but something special. Anyone can throw together big visuals with the right team, and the right budget. What distinguishes Elliott’s work is that underneath all those big images is a story driving it. Angels in America proved that once and for all, the biggest most sweeping spiraling narrative you could ask for, writ large on the Lyttleton stage and some full on Brechtian Epic staging, but what came through are the people. In ten years, while the Angel crashing to the stage will be a memory, it’ll be how you cried for Prior or the affinity you felt with Harper (or Louis….no just me?) that you’ll remember.  When I think of Curious Incident I have a general memory of the slick, brilliantly realised staging. But really, I think about Christopher and his story (ok and the dog).
And yes, it’s important that it’s a woman at the artistic helm. Not just because we need more women visible in what is a male-dominated industry. But we need more women visibility taking charge and running things. That Elliott has used the status and freedom that being at the helm of the National Theatre’s biggest hitters not just to pick and choose what she directs, but to take more artistic charge with a production company, is exactly the steer the industry needs. Elliott could well have gone on directing for the National, or the Old Vic or frankly any other major theatre company who would a) be lucky to have her b) probably bite her arm off to have her direct for them. But in choosing to break out alone Elliott has taken back control, and is able to steer not only her career but in a broader sense the theatrical landscape in directions she chooses. And my goodness does it make a nice change to write ‘she’ in all these sentences.
This isn’t about quotas, or a numbers game. It is also about getting women’s voices heard. And that is on stage and off. Off stage it’s about the sense of hope a woman in charge brings, the idea that the person running this show (in the literal and figurative sense) understands the challenges women face- firstly to get a foothold in a room of noisy men, but then as we get older and it gets harder to be heard, as we juggle children with career, still playing catch up from before and often fade further into the background. And it’s not about saying women will automatically give other women opportunities (though that’s what men have been doing since the dawn of time) it’s saying women will recognise those struggles. The women who end up working with Elliott will still be the best of the best, because they’ll need to be, but the difference is that elsewhere those women might have been overlooked.
And then there’s telling women’s stories. Putting women’s stories at the forefront. That doesn’t mean telling only stories about women or written by women (though obviously that is something we all need to keep pushing for) but it means not pushing the women to the back in the stories we have. Looking at how Elliott directed Angels we already see that- in a story that is filled with men, the voices of the women still rang out strong and for once I felt Harper’s story was as much at the centre. Now in Heisenberg we have a woman in Simon Stephen’s play sharing equal footing with the male character- that’s a woman’s story on stage. We aren’t asking for it to all be about women, we just need stories, and directors who get that voice heard.
And a part of that of course is Company. That deserves its own analysis just for existing. But the fact that people (men) are already complaining that it won’t work, exactly proves why it’s a story begging to be told. As a 33-year-old single woman, honestly the thought of Company told through a woman’s lens makes me want to cry- because it feels like my voice is being heard. Because I’ve heard all the things thrown at Bobby a hundred times, and because as a musical theatre nerd I want a woman at the heart of something not just to fall in love with the man. And because well who doesn’t cry a bit at the thought of Rosalie Craig in anything right? But in all seriousness, maybe the piece has started to age with Bobby as a man but put a woman’s voice at the heart and it feels like that answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask. And that’s why, that’s why we need women like Marianne Elliott taking charge, making work.

And if your opening move involves re-writing Sondheim…well I can’t wait to see where you go from there. So, Elliott & Harper, break a leg as Heisenberg opens its doors. And from there…who knows but it looks like it’s going to be something worth watching in every sense.