Despite having “America” in its title, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America owes a fair amount of its early development—and its high early profile—to Britain’s National Theatre. And as its first Broadway revival readies its opening in March, almost exactly 25 years since its original Main Stem run, it seems oddly fitting that this new production also comes from the National Theatre. This seems a fitting point to reflect on the trans-Atlantic theatrical exchange that forms an integral part of the history of this most American of plays, and in so doing reflect on the act of revival, theatrical history, and the art of theatrical progress.
How many times can I fall in love with this play all over again? And how also does it still hurt so damn much.
Photo: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue
It’s something that’s been kicking around my brain a lot, as the production moves towards Broadway.
Today spurned on by the article in Vogue and the gorgeous images taken by Annie Leibowitz I think I crystallized a few of those thoughts.
Let’s backtrack again. The article in Vogue. With pictures by Annie Leibowitz.
And of course the small fact that Angelsis back on Broadway (in the theatre most recently housing Cats for added nerd value). And with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Lee Pace and the wonder-New-York-Recently-Discovered that is Denise Gough. (I’m staking the claim now America, you don’t get to keep her.)
All of that is enough to make this nerd heart leap. But what I’m still struck by is the power this play still has. Even in the thinking about it.
The Messenger arrives in the original production
I spent years writing about this play in what felt like the backrooms of academia. This play has always been a pretty damn big deal. From opening at the National Theatre and on Broadway to great acclaim. To the theatrical, political and cultural statements and stirrings it caused. You don’t get to be ‘The most talked about written about’ play in American theatre for nothing. But, fighting my small corner on it, I spent years of a PhD and beyond feeling like Louis and his piles of research- shouting from the photocopier hoping someone would listen. I’ve written about all this before. How I was done with it all. How this production changed all that, changed me. But I guess every time it still sneaks up and surprises me with the sheer force of it.
Actually through most of the PhD I looked like this.
Why does it still surprise me how much I fall in love with it?
“You’re not stupid so don’t ask stupid”
Alright Mormon Mother you’re right.
But why then does it also feel like my heart is breaking?
“When your heart breaks you should die.”
Thanks for that Harper.
And the emotions all of this- as the Broadway production is in rehearsals, as the theatre is being dressed, as it almost is time for these Angels to fly on Broadway for the first time in 20 years. It’s an impressive number. It’s an impressive play. And impressive production. But this play, this production is so much more.
When I was slaving over a 100, 000-word thesis on it. It felt like the forgotten masterpiece. In the UK it crashes back through our ceilings about once a decade. And last time, Daniel Kramer’s masterful incarnation stirred feathers, but was no ‘Heaven Quake’. This time around it was the theatrical event of the year for many. And suddenly, my passion project was everywhere. For the first time in a long, long time it felt like the world was paying attention again.
Suddenly, through also virtue of some pretty special actors involved- whether it was for Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield or Denise Gough your interest was stirred (Special shout out to a subset of theatre Twitter in the James McArdle camp of ‘you have my attention’). All of theatre world was talking about it and it was joyous. Even when we disagreed, even when people still 20 years on couldn’t wrap their heads around Perestroika as the wonderful difficult second child that it is. Even when those who loved the original couldn’t gel with Elliott’s re-writing of the style. It was vibrant, and passionate and intellectual debate. Even those who hated it. But it also felt like London embraced this play once again with the same welcome it had 25 years ago. It felt like it stayed a bit of a worst kept secret, this wonderful creation on the South Bank.
Why does it rip at my heart to see it on Broadway? Because it’s terrifying. And wonderful. All at once. It’s sending this crystallized, inventive but boundary pushing creation from Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre back ‘home’ to New York. And it feels almost-to use an appropriate idiom- a bloody cheek for a bunch of Brits to be giving it the first Broadway revival. But it also feels bloody good. And a little bit exciting that we know what’s coming.
It is as Prior himself might say, ‘Wonderful and horrible all at once’. This precious thing you guarded for so long, that you fought for (and over- viciously) is now suddenly being once again the fodder of the masses. And as much as you wanted the world to share this thing you love, there’s also a part of you that wants to keep it close, for fear somehow in the sharing it gets ruined.
And it’s wonderful because you want everyone to know just how brilliant, and life changing and exciting it is. (And I have enough of Louis in me to be unable to resist that) But being so close to something, as researching a PhD makes you, it feels horribly exposing. Seeing that thing under such public focus, takes what you’d kept so close to your heart for so long. Because also suddenly everyone has an opinion. And everyone might have an opinion on your opinion, should you dare to say ‘Um actually I know this play better than a lot of people….here I have a thing to prove it.’
And of course on a personal level I’m desperate to write about it and to have a platform to do so- and my heart is breaking a little that, no matter how many brilliant pitches I write, I probably won’t get the platform to do so. And my heart is in this play, and I have more of it in my head than frankly some of the people who step out on that stage. I have ten years of head and heart, and I’m pleading with the Universe to just give me one more chance to share it- More Life once more if you will.
But most of all I’m bursting- with pride and love that this thing I love is soon to be back in the world again.
Seeing those pictures again, I was struck most of all by the sheer force of it. Every time I think I’m back to that colder intellectualism, something takes hold of me again.
And with this production, it feels like us Brits are in on the secret. We know how wonderful it is. What an incredible feat Marianne Elliott pulled off with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. Even those Americans who saw the NT Live broadcast who think they know, don’t really know the real power of it in person. And that’s exciting to watch happen again.
There is a force of nature to this play. It not only gets into your head, but it is under your skin and takes a hold like no other piece of art ever has. And it is that, that driving, consuming love for it that keeps me writing. And I cling onto that. Like Prior’s ancestors in that boat.
And yeah it still can knock me sideways. That’s how I know it’s sincere. That’s how I know I have to keep working. That the World only Spins Forward.
And I have lots more to say about all that. I hope to say it. I plan to. Somehow.
Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.
I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again. To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.
A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life. From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto.
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.
I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.
“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”
And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.
There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one). If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.
This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.
“But still….bless me anyway”
Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.
And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.
The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.
I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did. I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.
Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you. Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that. The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.
In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world. To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words. Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.
“I’m almost done”
It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.
So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.
“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
So it’s official that the Angels are flying back to America.
Admittedly it was a fairly well known ‘secret’ and admittedly I knew some weeks ago. On one hand that’s what made it easier for me to say ‘I’m fine really’ once Angels closed- knowing it wasn’t a real ‘goodbye’ just ‘farewell’.
So what does it mean really to fly home to Broadway? well for me the NT revival was always the big one. That was ‘home’ for ‘my’ Angels. I’ve always been pretty nerdy about the fact the technical world premiere of the whole thing was there.
But now, for a British director and (largely) British cast to take that most American of plays back home. That takes some chutzpah- in a really good way. Because America has done productions, in fact it’s almost continually doing them. We do them about every 10 years. And this was the big one- this was the Anniversary one that nearly wasn’t at the NT (it was nearly at the Old Vic fact fans, until Mr Spacey had a change of heart, and thank God he did- just to have it back ‘home’). It was lifting it out of the Cottesloe and throwing it on the biggest stage the NT has, and one of the most difficult stages in London. It was throwing a few actors that had a lot of people scratching their heads about both individually and as a group and going ‘look what they can do’. It was directed by a woman- something we don’t seem to make much fuss about but really really should. Because as a woman who has worked on this play for a long time too, you get a lot of funny looks and a lot of Men telling you that it’s not your place.
Maybe it wasn’t perfect, not for everyone, but it was everything and anniversary production (official or otherwise) should be- it was breaking the mould and rebuilding. And it was big and bold and beautiful, and all the theatrical magic that Kushner wrote in.
And I’m proud you know? I’m proud of that collection of actors, designers, Stage management and everyone else at the NT who brought this beast back to life. Because while it’s just another play, it’s not just another play. It’s one of those rare and special plays, that deserves a rare and special production. So I say take it out there with pride not to show America ‘how it’s done’ just to show them what you can do.
And there’s a wonderful cyclical nature to it all. That the NT was so intrinsic in giving the original production life, that it should be a part of giving it ‘More Life’ on Broadway.
And for me? well as I said previously, in my long ramble about what all this means to me (here) this will always be “my” production. The one that left it’s mark on my heart. I loved this play with all of my head before this, but this production made it a part of me again. I fell in love with theatre as a Broadway fan girl, I grew up dreaming of The Great White way and the romance and magic of those theatres. It started friendships and a life long pastime with my Mum. Only yesterday Mum said to me ‘I don’t care how we do it but we’ll make it there (to NY) for Angels’. And that’s really the marker of all this- theatre, going to New York, and the PhD have been a family affair for so long, and Angels being tied up in so much New York mythology for me- for us- has been part of that. All of which me to a PhD, which led me to all this.
I’d be so happy for any production in New York, but to ‘fly’ it ‘home’ with this production so dear to my heart and that made such an impact, that’s something important. So in just under a year’s time, when it really is ‘Goodbye’ on Broadway, that feels like a right ending for me.
“History is about the crack wide open” warns the Angels to Prior Walter. And history, of Reagan, 80s America and AIDS is certainly on show for all to see in the National Theatre’s revival of Angels in America. But why does a play about 1980s America, specifically the title might suggest Gay America resonate still? Is it now a play that is dated? Is it a historical piece?
Set in 1985 and Addressing issues- from AIDS to Cold War Politics that have now receded into the past or given way to new concerns? When viewed today parts of it seem terrifyingly current. Economic downturns? Extreme right wing political views taking hold? Fear of Russia? Vague but ever present threat of nuclear war? Impending environmental disaster? Granted, when the play was announced a year ago nobody could know we’d have an American President and British Prime Minister who genuinely longed to return to the days of Reagan and Thatcher, or that the threat of war with Russia or nuclear fear like the Cold War would enter our day to day lives again.
The announcement that Angels would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017, and next to Broadway in 2018 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ might suggest. The play in fact received its world premiere at premiered at the National Theatre in 1994, where by a quirk of logistical fate it opened ahead of its Broadway counterpart. It was a hit in the smaller Cottesloe space, and earned theatrical accolades on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the most important and memorable pieces of new work the National has staged, it was no surprise it was included in their 50th Anniversary celebrations, or that Rufus Norris has chosen to revisit the play in his second year in charge of the theatre. 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 Elliott, 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. It is also significant in it’s addressing of the AIDS crisis.
Kushner’s was one of a wide variety of theatrical works to tackle AIDS, but also the highest profile. His depiction of AIDS in the earliest years of the epidemic is brutal in both its depiction of characters succumbing to illness, but also in the wider impact on the lives of those affected by AIDS. In so doing, addressing issues of what it meant to be a gay man in the 1980s; from Louis and Prior’s unapologetic openness to his closeted characters, Joe and Roy.
And while the production has gained attention for its star filled cast it truly is an ensemble piece. Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence do a lot of the less glamourous but important work, sharing a variety of characters between them – not least in the case of Lawrence the Angel of the title which is a physical challenge as much as a performance one. Meanwhile, Brown notably as Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg becomes the focus of any scene she is in. Elsewhere Nathan Stewart- Jarret also steals many a laugh and indeed a scene from Nathan Lane with his own camp wit and sharp delivery. Stewart-Jarret shouldn’t be underestimated however as just the comic turn in ex-drag Queen and nurse Belize, as the friend of someone dying of AIDS, and the nurse to a foe he’d rather not treat, there’s a quiet depth to the performance beneath one liners and loud costumes.
The real heart of the piece, and the real challenge to the audience lies Prior, the insight into Kushner’s philosophical reflections yes, but also the heart of the paly as the man we watch succumbing to AIDS. The effect of this hinges largely on the performances of Andrew Garfield as Prior and James McArdle as Louis. Garfield quickly proves he is a natural Prior, balancing heart-breaking performance with a razor-sharp wit. McArdle’s understated but powerful performance as Louis is what really lifts this element of the narrative and the heart of the play.
Angels is both one play in two parts and two separate plays, and though both are written in the Brechtian Epic style it is Perestroika in which Elliott truly runs with this style. Millennium’s at times overly-staged format becomes instead a set up for the stripping back, and (almost literal) pulling the rug away from the audience in Part 2 until they are left with a virtually bare stage. This is by no means a simplistic staging and things veer from a piling up of debris on stage, to spectacular intricate moving set pieces, to of course the returning Angel of the title.
Perestroika is a theatrical piece, reliant on a director teasing out all the elements that lift it out of what can simply end up a wordy confusing mess without the right steer. Which Elliot manages admirably, particularly when viewed alongside Millennium. Although theatricality drives Perestroika it is not without its moments of honest emotional realism, and that is the gift that is this piece a challenging but rewarding veering between the two pulling the audience along with it. It’s a confidence of a director to take things this far, a confidence present in knowing when to return to the words of the playwright, and trust in the power of the actors. And it is with this the play ends. Stripped back staging as part of the wider metaphor yes, but also offer no distraction from the writing.
In doing a final battle with the Angel, Prior is released after demanding ‘More Life’ What that ‘More Life’ might mean is ultimately in the hands of the audience, and 25 years after the original naturally some of that meaning, and what is carried out may have changed. It was never about the specifics of the politics for Kushner- he was writing back to the Reagan era as Clinton was elected president. Like Louis in the play Kushner is concerned with the bigger picture, the idea again as Prior concludes ‘We will be citizens’. Grand yes, fitting with the scale of the piece certainly, and finally effective.
Angels in America transfers to Broadway from March 2018.