Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****

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Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.