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Kushner Visits The National Theatre (a history of a playwright and a theatre)

Audio recording of this talk is above, originally intended for an interactive discussion as part of the National Theatre’s learning programmes, this is a modified version of that talk in written and recorded form.

The powerpoint can also be accessed here:

Angels

Anyone who wants to ask questions or engage in discussion I can be found on twitter as @EmiGarside

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Introduction Tony Kushner and the NT – from Angels to The Visit.

 ‘Hello and Good Morning’

I like to start all my Kushner pieces like that, as it’s the opening of Angels in America, spoken by the Rabbi Isidor Chemlwitz, addressing the audience and inviting them in…so that’s what we’ll do.

This talk was destined for a full day of Kushner fun at the National Theatre. Designed as combination ‘Tony Kushner 101’ but also an insight into how one of America’s greatest living dramatists came to have such a strong relationship with Britain’s National Theatre…and why perhaps his work is such a good fit for the National.

‘I like big stages’ Kushner.

Big stages and big stories. This is why his adaptation of The Visit has worked so well for the National. Taking in all of the Olivier stage- and space above and below. With over 30 cast members and a choir, Kushner took the idea of big stories and ran with it. It feels both fully Kushner, and fully the National Theatre- an example of what both can do when let loose to play with everything in their arsenal. For Kushner, it feels maybe a strange departure, an adaptation not an original work…but his return with The Visit also seems to fit perfectly into his relationship with The National Theatre.

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. The Visit is a kind of triumphant return for one of America’s greatest living dramatists.

 

In the town of Slurry, New York, the post-war recession has bitten. Claire Zachanassian, improbably beautiful and impenetrably terrifying, returns to her hometown as the world’s richest woman. The locals hope her arrival signals a change in their fortunes, but they soon realise that prosperity will only come at a terrible price. She promises them the financial means to fix their deteriorating town if they kill Alfred Ill, an upstanding member of the community, local shop owner…but who had an affair with her as a young man, fathered her child who tragically died, and denied he was the father in court. Seeking revenge for that portion of her life decades later, Claire makes the town of Slurry choose between the one thing that can save them- money- and saving a member of their community. An updating of the tragicomic 1956 play. It’s told with wit in this epic version that will have audiences debating the best way to kill a man at each interval. And the ethics of it on the way home (maybe).

Fridrich Durrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame premiered in Xurch in 1956. From there it transferred to Munich and started a ‘tour of triumph’ from there: first in the German-speaking countries where it was the most stated play of 1956 and 1957. It was then produced around the world in France, Spain, Poland, and Japan amongst other countries.

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Maurice Valency was the first to adapt the play into English, for a production in London and the New York in 1958, which starred husband and wife Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and was directed by Peter Brook. All three were nominated for Tony Awards.

It has since been adapted for stage and screen many times in numerous languages. In 1964 Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn starred in a much-altered film directed by Bernhard Wicki which had the tagline ‘Hell hath no fury’. In that version, however, Zachanassian halts the execution, giving the town the money as pledged, but forcing Ill to live there among his would-be executioners.

An opera version was created by Durrenmatt himself, with music by Gottfried von Einem was first performed in 1971. And a musical version (90 minutes with songs) was created by Kander and Ebb with a book by Terrance McNally in 2015. As much as there are many jokes to be made about Kander and Ebb managing to do it in 90 minutes straight through with songs, while Kushner took 4 hours, there’s also now the sad reflection that McNally sadly died. A contemporary of Kushner’s in using theatre to confront the AIDS epidemic (specifically with Love! Valour! Compassion! but also in being a visible Gay playwright, and campaigner), McNally sadly died in March 2020.  His star in The Visit (and other productions, as a long term collaborator and friend) Chita Revera said at his passing ‘ A huge part of me is gone. But then it’s not. Terrence wouldn’t like that. he helped to make me who I am as a person. He is the epitome of love and friendship’

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Previous UK productions include 1989 production by Complicate which transferred t the National theatre. As well as a 1995 production directed by Terry Hands at Chichester Festival Theatre.

In the new edition of the play Durrenmatt is quoted as saying in 1980 ‘The Visit was my breakthrough; it is my most popular play’

So why then Tony Kushner? Why the National? Why now?

All valid questions….

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The Visit, The National Theatre, and Tony Kushner

The Visit is also a crash course in what Kushner does but also something quite different. Being an adaptation it isn’t as inherently ‘Kushner’ as his other work, for obvious reasons. And yet it is also.

  • Long.
  • Personal is political.
  • Political and social outsiders.
  • Powerful and mysterious women (who run the world etc)
  • Damaged communities
  • Damaged men struggling with what society expects.
  • Political commentary on the present through history.
  • Long.

As for the National Theatre, it is the type of play only the National, and only the Olivier stage can do. It is a huge production in every respect- spanning 4 hours in previews but trimmed to a sprightly 3.5 in production. It has two intervals and uses every inch of the Olivier stage (and substantial space above and below it). Over 30 performers flesh out the production. In these days of small budgets and shrinking productions, when writers are told more than a four-hander limits your chances of getting produced there is opulence to it that suits both the original and Kushner’s writing.

And so who is Tony Kushner and how did we get here?

Who is Tony Kushner?

Born 16th July 1956 in Manhattan to musician parents. Jewish of Polish/Russian descent they moved to Lake Charles Louisiana when Kushner was a baby. He was raised in the South before returning to New York for University (Columbia, Medieval Studies, 1978) and then moved to NYU to study at the Tisch School of the Arts (1984). He has several honorary degrees including an honorary Doctorate from Ithaca College.

Prolific as a writer from college age, he had a range of smaller scale productions in his early career including:

  • The Age of Assassins, New York, Newfoundland Theatre, 1982.
  • La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse, New York, Ohio Theatre, 1983.
  • The Heavenly Theatre, produced at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, 1984.
  • The Umbrella Oracle, Martha’s Vineyard, The Yard, Inc..
  • Last Gasp at the Cataract, Martha’s Vineyard, The Yard, Inc., 1984.
  • Yes, Yes, No, No: The Solace-of-Solstice, Apogee/Perigee, Bestial/Celestial Holiday Show, produced in St. Louis, Imaginary Theatre Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 1985, published in Plays in Process, 1987.

From 1985 with A Bright Room Called Day, Kushner’s first ‘major’ work – and one that has been probably produced most consistently- he has created an impressive body of work:

  • A Bright Room Called Day – 1985.
  • Hydriotaphia, produced in New York City, 1987 (based on the life on Sir Thomas Browne)
  • The Illusion – adapted from Pierre Corneille’s play L’illusion comique; produced in New York City, 1988, revised version produced in Hartford, CT, 1990)
  • Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches (produced in San Francisco, 1991), Hern, 1992.
  • Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part Two: Perestroika, produced in New York City, 1992.
  • Homebody/Kabul, first performed in New York City, December 2001.
  • Caroline, or Change (musical), first performed in New York at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 2002..
  • Mother Courage and Her Children Translation with “liberties”—but purportedly “not an adaptation”—of  (2006)
  • The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures Minneapolis, Guthrie Theater, 2009.
  • Tiny Kushner, (five shorter plays) Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, 2009

He worked consistently as a writer since college, but by his own admission only started making a living from writing after selling his first screenplay (for Angels in 2002, so almost 20 years of ‘success’ later).  He has worked with Steven Speilberg (and one hopes quoted his own play ‘Very Steven Speilberg’ at least once during this) on all of his major film projects to date, with Munich in 2005, Lincoln in 2012 and the forthcoming West Side Story in 2020…and including an ‘uncredited’ adaptor of August Wilson’s Fences in which Kushner took up the mantle after the playwright died before production could complete. The pattern of adaptation, alongside historical fusing with current political commentary, is also apparent in his screen work. As well of course as adding further critical acclaim, including Oscar nominations for both Lincoln and Munich.

In his personal life, Kushner and his husband, Mark Harris, held a commitment ceremony in April 2003, the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be featured in the Vows column of The New York Times. Harris is an editor of Entertainment Weekly and author of Pictures at a Revolution – Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. In summer 2008, Kushner and Harris were legally married at the town hall in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The drive for marriage equality was one Kushner campaigned heavily on, as politics personally, as in his plays are never far from the forefront of his life as well as work.

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Passionately political- seen clearly in any of his work, Kushner has campaigned across gay rights, particularly in recent years the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ and the Equal Marriage Bill. Kushner was quoted in the 2010 book “It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs” on page 76. His six-word memoir was “At least I never voted Republican.”

While his plays are unashamedly political, he is also a regular at political marches and demonstrations. Campaigning for the Democrats and driving voters on Polling days.

 

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He has not been immune to political criticism, not just predictably from the Right and homophobes, but also from his criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of the increased religious extremism in Israeli politics and culture has created some controversy with U.S. Jews. Around 2006 causing something of a stir in American Jewish and political circles, resulting in some calling for his honorary doctorate and associated commencement address to be revoked.

Kushner has never been one to shy away from the argument and has stood firm to his beliefs

‘He delivers fierce opinions in genial, unruffled tones at lighting speed.’ Said The Paris Review, in an interview and that is an apt description of his writing.

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Plays and Politics

‘The one thing that I do think was kind of new, at least in American playwriting when I wrote Angels, was that I made the decision that these characters were going to see the world through a political lens.’

An unapologetically political playwright, he is also a playwright who keeps family and love at the heart of his work. With the supernatural permeating a lot of what he does (even at his own expense in re-writes to Bright Room Called Day where “the playwright” now appears to offer commentary on the criticism of previous productions).

‘I would hate to write anything that wasn’t” part of a political movement. “I would like my plays to be of use to progressive people. I think preaching to the converted is exactly what art ought to do.’ (1995, Mars Jones)

He doesn’t consider his plays a means of political lecturing to be listened to passively, or with him as the expert. He considers this a Jewish characteristic, in a sense. In the rabbinic tradition, “you don’t get attention just because somebody’s elected you cardinal and you put on a big hat.” Rather, for rabbinic Judaism, “knowledge is the seedbed and the foundation of power. If one isn’t able to ask provocative, mind-expanding questions, then one has no business asking for anyone’s attention.”

All of this comes into play in ‘The Visit’ in which 1950s Slurry New York, is a clear metaphor for the late capitalism of modern day America. In which a loved resident will be sacrificed for cold hard cash. For Kushner the past as political allegory, as well as art and politics have long since been intertwined.

“Some visionary playwrights want to change the world. Some want to revolutionize the theater. Tony Kushner, the remarkably gifted 36-year-old author of Angels in America, is that rarity of rarities: a writer who has the promise to do both.” Frank Rich 1992

Stylistically, Kushner has in a way created a style of his own.  He blends poetry and politics. Brechtian with American lyrical traditions of Tennessee Williams and infused with the world of activism, and with indeed his parents’ musical background.

‘I always go back to Brecht’ has long since been Kushner’s refrain. That blurring of the lines between audience and consciousness.  And yes, with an undercurrent of politics. He has been accused of ‘ludicrous’ in his stage directions. Kushner himself prefers to consider them moments of ‘excitement’ If we look at a stage direction from Angels

“A sound, like a plummeting meteor, tears down from very, very far above the earth, hurtling at an incredible velocity towards the bedroom; the light seems to be sucked out of the room as the projectile approaches; as the room reaches darkness, we hear a terrifying CRASH as something immense strikes earth; the whole building shudders and a part of the bedroom ceiling, lots of plaster and lathe and wiring crashes to the floor. And then in a shower of unearthly white light, spreading great opalescent grey-silver wings, the angel descends into the room and floats above the bed.”

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Kushner says of it; ‘[I] hope that doesn’t sound ludicrous. I hope when a reader reads that, he or she will feel, first, shivers and glee; and then they might ask, as a designer or director ought to: “Wow! HOW are we (they) going to do THAT!?” “What will that look like on stage!?”

And he’s right there’s a sense of attempting the impossible in what he rights, but also a sense of what might be possible.

And another from The Visit proves little has changed, only evolved in the intervening years…

It is impossible to know her age. Her face, heavily painted, almost resembles a mask from some ritual drama. She’s bedecked with alarming jewellery. She is terrifying, excessive to the verge of insanity, also improbably beautiful. She walks with the aid of a jewelled cane.

This from The Visit goes on a further two paragraphs. They are both excessive in detail, yet the detail relates to the wider world Kushner creates, and can also be forgotten. The wires may show however a director ultimately pleases. And while Kushner is incredibly particular on the cutting of his words, the look and the feel of a piece still can and must evolve with the directors.

 

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He is of course famed for his relationships with directors. Beautifully synchronistic, but also infamous in other ways. Oskar Eustis and he get on famously well. Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod famously banned him from the National’s rehearsal room (in hatchets long since buried over the endless re-writes of what was already a 7-hour play). Kushner is a writer who commands the room, but the results are often so exquisite is worth it. It’s no surprise really that this auteur of a writer teamed up with Steven Spielberg when he made the move to film.

Angels at the National

The first relationship with the National Theatre was tumultuous, yes, but it marked the beginning of a nearly 30-year relationship with the theatre. 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.

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Angels in America burst into the theatrical world, much like the Angel through Prior Walter’s ceiling, in 1993.  A weaving of over 30 characters Kushner’s play creates a world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through-yes fittingly- Spielberg-like spectacle.

Production of Angels in America began in 1988 in San Francisco, when Kushner was offered, through a special project grant from the National Endowment for the Arts a commission from the Eureka Theatre Company. Following workshops in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this Epic piece of American theatre made its way to the National Theatre in 1993 in a co-production with theatre company Cheek by Jowl. It was through a quirk of logistical fate, partly the technology of making the Angel fly in New York, that the National Theatre’s production became the world premiere of the full two-part drama. It was on 20th November 1993 that Millennium Approaches and Perestroika had their world premiere at the National Theatre, in the then Cottesloe theatre, the Broadway premiere of both parts happened at the Walter Kerr theatre three days later the 23rd November 1993.

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The genesis of the play in London has become the stuff of theatrical legend; From Artistic director Richard Eyre reading the play almost by accident, finding himself snowed in at home, to the tempestuous relationship between playwright and director. Cheek By Jowl, the theatre company Eyre immediately thought of to collaborate on Angels were known- as the name suggests- for working on Shakespearean texts. Chosen by Eyre to co-produce for their experience in sweeping narratives and an eye for the unconventional. The company who would create an inaugural production of Angels that was different in style and approach to its contemporaries, and yet one that played a part in creating the blueprint of this play . Kushner commented on his feelings about the British production of Angels in advance of its performance:

‘I feel tremendously excited, honoured that the Royal National Theatre want to do it. I’m also very nervous…But I don’t know how British audiences will respond.’ (Kushner, Gay Times 1992)

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Kushner was possibly correct to worry- the sweeping and controversial nature of the play was an antithesis to the big-budget musicals of the West End in this era, and a play about gay men and AIDS in contrast to the traditional productions much of the National’s audience would have been used to. And there were some reservations. Benedict Nightingale commented;

A three-and-a-half-hour play about Aids is not the most inviting of prospects, nor its American author’s subtitle ‘A gay fantasia on National themes’ the most seductive of theatrical come ons. (The Telegraph, 1992)

However, it did receive acclaim from critics including:

 ‘something rare dangerous and harrowing has erupted upon the London stage. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is like a roman candle hurled into a drawing room.’(deJongh, The Evening Standard, 1992)

 

angels original 4

Ultimately it was a gamble that paid off. The run at the National was successful, and reviews asserted the importance of the plays. The staging of Angels, an untested American work of this scale, at the National Theatre is indicative both of an understanding of its importance as a text and recognition of Kushner’s significance as a contemporary American playwright.  This play was an important landmark in the National Theatre’s history- situating not only an American play- but an American gay play about AIDS on the National Stage (in both senses) was a brave and important move. Although not creating a wave of Angels imitators in theatre, Angels nonetheless impacted the British theatrical landscape in its staging. Angels opened discussion and potential for more plays of this nature, more plays which were grand in scale and scope.

Oh and also, James Bond and Lucious Malfoy were lovers in this version…(Daniel Craig and Jason Issacs as Joe and Louis)

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Caroline or Change

Kushner’s relationship with the National Theatre continued with his next big project- a semi-autobiographical musical, Caroline or Change. A similarly Brechtian musical, it follows a Jewish family in Louisiana, through the eyes of their maid Caroline. On one level charting the Civil Rights tensions of the 1960s, on the other the private grief of a family. The musical numbers are brought to life by inanimate objects made animate- a chorus of ‘the Radio’ narrate much of it musically but are joined by ‘the washing machine’ or ‘the bus’ again the supernatural elements of Angels  from another angle.

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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.

Staging the commercially impossible remains a through line in Kushner’s work. His first musical (do we count West Side Story as the second?) was created with Jeanine Tesori. Not known for sing-along classics and tap dancing- Kushner was never likely to write that kind of musical. Tesori began her career arranging the dance music for the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995) and is probably best known for her work on Shrek the musical or Fun Home depending on your personal taste in musicals and it’s style combines spirituals, blues, Motown, classical music, and Jewish klezmer and folk music.

 

Tonya Pinkins from the original Broadway cast, Tony Award performance.

The musical was first workshopped in May 1992 at New York’s Off-Broadway Public Theater. Director George C. Wolfe continued to workshop the musical at the Public Theater, where it opened on November 30, 2003 and closed on February 1, 2004. It transferred to Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on May 2, 2004 and closed on August 29, 2004 after 136 performances and 22 previews. It was, we could say, not a commercial success. And once again the National and Kushner’s relationship with them proved the more appropriate vehicle for it.

Opening in October 2006, a London production at the National Theatre on the Lyttleton stage, also directed by Wolfe, ran in repertory with Marianne Elliot’s production of Thérèse Raquin to January 2007. The production did not transfer to the West End but did win the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The opening night cast in London starred Tonya Pinkins as Caroline. Other cast members included Pippa Bennett-Warner as Emmie Thibodeaux, Anna Francolini as Rose Stopnick Gellman, Hilton McRae as Mr. Stopnick, Perry Millward, Jonny Weldon and Greg Bernstein alternating as Noah and Clive Rowe as the dryer/bus.

“The National Theatre used to bring us Broadway’s golden oldies. Now it imports something original: a remarkable musical, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori’- Billigton, The Guardian.

Caroline again was the type of production that the National could make, sell and that their audiences were receptive to that, strangely the ‘home crowd’ or at least the commercial Broadway crowd, was not. Kushner is not really a commercial theatre writer- something he himself noted when Angels first went to Broadway. His work finds a natural home with the National and perhaps, strangely, British audiences as well.

Angels fly again

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?

Under the Skin of Angels in America (Part 2)

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.

This time including a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming then a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself, that the NT has returned to the production on such a scale. Including it in the celebration of 50 years was an indication of its importance to theatrical history. The revival became one of the fastest (the fastest?!) selling productions in NT history.

More Life- Angels in America on Broadway

With a flurry of London awards, and critical acclaim, it was a successful a revival as anyone could hope for. Strangely the reviews, as well as the public response, seemed to embrace Angels more so in the revival than the original. Added to this it is fitting that the National was able to not ‘upgrade’ but ‘upscale’ the play to the Lyttleton theatre for this run. Setting aside that it is notoriously difficult to direct a play in that space, seeing the play on such a scale, and giving it the full technical scope that the space could offer, gave it new dimensions. It’s a play that could be performed on 8 chairs and have an equally powerful effect. But giving it the full might of the National’s resources really, pardon the pun, let it fly.

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And fly it did- back to Broadway the following year. With a slightly tweaked cast and altered staging- partly to reflect the constraints of Broadway houses compared with the flexibility of the National, partly to adapt to new cast members and new ideas from the interim. But Angels here was a critical success.

Harder once again to ‘sell’ a two-part play to audiences, more difficult too to sell an American classic back to America when produced by a British team. It went on to become the most nominated play in Tony Award history, winning a slew of other awards across the season also. But such was the quality of the production, and indeed the respect for the National’s programming, that it worked. Most importantly it worked because what had been produced was the best version that play could be in that moment. And what an achievement, to be the production that took this iconic American play back to Broadway for the first time.

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Why The Visit? On one hand why not?

After Angels it would have seemed fitting that Kushner return with a new original play. Or at least a revivial of one of his old ones- A Bright Room Called Day has been revived with a re-written version at New York’s answer to the National, The Public Theatre. And while Caroline had a revival at the Hampstead Theatre and later the West End, there are many of Kushner’s ‘smaller’ plays (including the wonderfully named ‘Tiny Kushner’ collection of short plays) that need, how do we put this, a bit of a safety net to make them viable to stage…Or was it time for the long-rumoured Trump play from Kushner? None of this, instead an adaptation. And why this play? Why now?

Why not, is a perfectly viable answer. It feels like a Kushner interlude, a taster while we wait for the next original epic…and The Visit lets Kushner flex a few muscles he’s learned in film- adaptation and the art of giving your own voice to something that has at its heart another’s…he’s most recently finished adapting West Side Story so why not add another iconic work into the mix with The Visit?

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It fits perfectly Kushner’s Americana aesthetic. The transformation of the German play to the depths of the American depression is fitting, and one as with the best of Kushner’s work where history reflects the present perfectly. The warnings from history are once again clear to see, even in adaptation.

‘Once a waystation, now a bywater, bypassed by commerce and attention…dark unfathomable forces at work…nobody visit slurry! Not any more!’

As David Hochfelder highlights in his programme essay, the problems of such towns in 1950s America reflect that of the original play. (as an aside ‘slurry’ fits with the original translation of ‘Gullen’ which means liquid manure)

It’s political on the micro and macro level. It’s the day to day politics of humans in a town, versus the government politics that got them there. It’s the rich in power over the poor. And the complexities of a rich woman, getting there through perhaps ill-gotten means, perhaps the least likeable person in the play but also central to it (Roy Cohn anyone). It’s a family drama that comments on the politics of the past and the present (Caroline). It’s a little bit out there and extreme…in other words classic Kushner.

The original play it is insisted by its author is a comedy (though many a German production may have ripped that from it somewhat). But it is a difficult thing to make comedic…enter Kushner. One of the most surprising things about his work is in fact how funny they are, even in the face of dark subject matter.  It’s not even a dark comedy, it’s just that his people, like people, are inherently funny.

 

Why though the National?

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Nowhere could have done a production quite like this. The combination of Jerry Herrin have done the impossible- filled the Olivier to the brim. Kushner took this play and expanded it, found routes in it that weren’t there. Wrote a luxurious prose poetry into a piece that previously had a different feel entirely. It’s the luxury of space to experiment, the lack of commercial pressure and the sheer space in every sense to create. Audiences wise where else can you get away with a 4-hour drama today? (3.5) that isn’t Harry Potter at least. It’s the audiences as well as the space, who are willing to sign up and say ‘ok we’re game’

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?  Or indeed something new…

A Bright Room Called DayWritten by Tony Kushner
Directed by Oskar Eustis
A Bright Room Called Day Written by Tony Kushner Directed by Oskar Eustis Michael Esper Grace Gummer Nikki M. James Crystal Lucas-Perry Nadine Malouf Mark Margolis Michael Urie Linda Emond Max Woertendyke Jonathan Hadary Estelle parsons

And it is the gift of the National Theatre to have this continued theatrical exchange with one of the greatest living American dramatists. And who knows what the future collaborations may hold…especially after Kushner has had plenty of time to write in Spring 2020 while theatres have been dark…we might want to bring a cushion though…and snacks.

 

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By emilygarside

Writer and researcher with a passion for all things theatre and arts.

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