The Visit, The National and Kushner

The end of Act 1 of The Visit sees Claire Zachanassian, returning in true theatrical style in a plume of smoke onto the Olivier stage after much theatrical foreshadowing. Short of calling Tony Kushner a Grande Dame of theatre, the parallels are certainly there. A significant relationship spanning 30 years. And The Visit does in this context feel a bit like dropping by, fabulous entourage in tow, of the greatest export- even if Kushner wasn’t a native, to begin with.
Kushner’s seminal Angels in America (1992/4) not only was the National Theatre the company behind the play’s first Broadway revival, but it was also intrinsic in the creation of this modern American classic. Surprisingly to everyone (Kushner himself included) Richard Eyre loved the idea of a (then unfinished) seven-hour odyssey on America, AIDS, and Angels. The National Theatre achieved the World Premiere of what would become an iconic play of the 20th century, with the opening of London just pipping Broadway to the post due to technical difficulties on the other side of the pond. The first run of Angels was a success, critically and commercially for the National, as was its part in that chapter of American theatre history.

Returning in 2006 with the UK premiere of Caroline or Change at the National Theatre. A lack of commercial success on Broadway meant that a West End run was unlikely, and the National became again the London home for Kushner’s newest work. Far from commercial musical theatre, The National Theatre provided a logical home for another of Kushner’s plays that pushed the boundaries of what audiences could expect- or indeed traditionally embrace.

And is there something in the British productions of this American’s work that resonates particularly? With Caroline returning to Broadway this year via a British (if not National Theatre) production. And Angels doing the same in 2018?
This true test of the National and Kushner’s enduring relationship came in 2017 when the National mounted a revival of Angels and became the first company to take the play back to Broadway. Flying the Angels back to their native New York was an act of theatrical nerve in some respects, but also an indication of the shared history of the play that it was accepted- and applauded on home soil. There is something even beautifully Kushnerian about the playwright who wrote a treatise on American political history being given voice by the British National Theatre. And for the writer who blends a unique mix of Brechtian Epic and a uniquely American sensibility to his writing- infused with Tennessee Williams along with a litany of Queer American culture, found a niche within the heart of British theatre also. Who somehow managed to sell that ‘vision’ back home on his behalf.

And while the National Theatre didn’t ‘discover’ Kushner- who had already reached a degree of upward trajectory in American theatre, the National Theatre’s platform for Angels cemented his path to be a leading American playwright of the 20th century. And in returning not with a new play, but as an adaptor of a classic, surely cements Kushner now among the National’s repertoire of regulars.

With the Public Theatre in New York- the closest thing to a National Theatre the US has- reviving a new version of Kushner’s troublesome first play A Bright Room Called Day in 2019, the question is perhaps, a time for a Kushner retrospective?  

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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