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Theatre: Angels in America reviewed by Paul Bailey

Arts | By Paul Bailey | Summer 2017


'A Gay Fantastia on National Themes'

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which has been revived in an inventive production by Marianne Elliott at the Lyttelton Theatre, is subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

The word ‘fantasia’ has to be kept in mind while watching the two plays that make up this epic drama. It’s a musical term to define a composition of a free or improvisatory nature that revels in the unexpected. And that’s precisely what Kushner achieves in this long and ambitious work, which keeps the surprises coming for more than seven hours.

I saw both parts of Angels in America on a single day. ‘Millennium Approaches’ began at 1pm and finished at 4.30, with ‘Perestroika’ following at 7pm and ending just after 11. I have to report that I would have been happy to remain in my seat until midnight, if Kushner, Elliott and the assemblage of brilliant actors at their disposal had wanted me to. 

The experience was rather like reading a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky – by which I mean having to endure pages of rhetoric, with the author sounding off on any subject that takes his moralising fancy, in the expectation of something wonderful about to happen again. 

In ‘Perestroika’, particularly, there are a good few rhetorical flourishes too many, when one longs for the speechifying to stop. And then it does, and the magic returns, with the added consolation of laughter.

To describe Angels in America as a period piece is not to diminish its importance in any way. It is set, specifically, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Aids epidemic looked unstoppable. 

In ‘Millennium Approaches’, which Kushner started writing in 1987, a young gay man called Prior Walter, whose English ancestors came to America with the Pilgrim Fathers, becomes inexplicably sick. No details are spared as the confidently waspish Prior, an artist of sorts who lives off family money, is transformed into a physical wreck, with lesions on his body and blood in his stool. 

His progress is charted throughout the entire play. In ‘Millennium Approaches’, he is terrified by the daily evidence of his rapidly developing illness, while in ‘Perestroika’ he has drug-induced nightmares (some of which are hilarious) that cause him to wake up screaming. After each visitation from Amanda Lawrence’s terrifying avenging Angel, who despairs of humanity, Prior is left depleted. When he finally emerges from his ordeal, it is as a man of considerable moral stature. Marianne Elliott has elicited a performance from Andrew Garfield as compelling as any I have ever witnessed in the theatre.

Prior’s Jewish boyfriend, Louis Ironson, likes to take the sorrows of the world on his metaphorical shoulders. He cries a great deal at the injustices he sees around him but runs away when he realises that Prior might be mortally ill. He’d prefer to give a lecture on suffering instead. Louis is played by the versatile James McArdle, who was so very good in the three early Chekhov plays at the Olivier last year.

There is a wickedly funny scene in which Louis accuses the black drag queen Belize of being anti-Semitic, a trait he shares with most blacks in America. Belize says nothing as he listens to Louis orbiting into the self-righteous stratosphere. He raises a startled eyebrow and mutters ‘Uh-huh’ before his patience cracks.

Belize is also a highly skilled nurse, accustomed to tending the dying. His current charge is Roy M Cohn, the scheming lawyer who rose to fame as an aide to Senator Joe McCarthy and sent the innocent Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. Cohn is the only character based on a real person in Angels in America

Cohn was an anti-Semitic Jew and a queer-hating homosexual who died in 1986 from an Aids-related illness, though he went to his grave threatening to sue anyone who said he didn’t have liver cancer. He was the mentor for the young Donald Trump, to whom he gave ‘masterclasses in malice’, as a noted American journalist observed recently.

This Cohn is like a comic Iago, a demon motived by spite, and the great Nathan Lane plays him accordingly. Whenever Lane is on stage, with Ethel’s ghost at his bedside, one wishes his Cohn to stay alive just a little longer. With the ever-sensible Belize, winningly acted by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, as his verbal sparring partner, the terrible comedy is almost beguiling.

In ‘Millennium Approaches’, Cohn is trying to advance the career of an apprentice lawyer, Joseph Pitt, a Mormon. Joe is married to the mentally unstable Harper, and the reason for her instability is made clear as the drama unfolds. Denise Gough is delicately matter-of-fact as she copes with each haunted day, and Russell Tovey wholly convincing as her equally desperate husband. But theirs is another story in a play packed with intriguing stories. Angels in America is, overall, an unforgettable theatrical experience. (The eight leading actors, who include Susan Brown as Joe’s Mother, play all the smaller parts as well, displaying a transsexual virtuosity.)

There will be two screenings of the play in selected cinemas: ‘Millennium Approaches’ on 20th July, and ‘Perestroika’ on 27th July. Go to ntlive.com for venues.


This story was from Summer 2017 issue. Subscribe Now