National Themes: How Britain’s Subsidized Theatre Helped ‘Angels’ Fly

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.

 

Read more at American Theatre 

Angels Crashing in: Broadway gets closer.

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 Angels is 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.

Sometimes you just need a hug when you think about it

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.

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

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 made by and produced by in the commercial realm. That’s potentially very exciting.

 

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Firstly, the act of two people who really love theatre, really understand  it 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 work 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 ‘Heisenberg’ 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.

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Why then is Elliott & Harper both such a good idea and an important one for? Firstly, then theatre people making theatre. As loathe as some critics are to admit it, we do have a lot of great  work 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.  Performance that challenges audiences, gives something new, twists those classics but is also accessible to casual and seasoned theatre goers alike.

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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.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.

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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 America is 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)

WAR HORSE London Cast 2014

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). 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.

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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 un-turned 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Elliott & Harper continue their first season with ‘Company’ later this year. Meanwhile their co-production of Angels in America opens on Broadway in March.

Angels in America opens on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre New York on Feburary 23rd. Tickets availble via Ticketmaster .

Company opens on 26th September at the Gielgud theatre  Tickets available here via Delfont Macintosh 

Flying the Angel of History

This piece was originally written for Wales Arts Review,  the full version can be found here.

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“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.

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Original National Theatre Poster

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.