Angels In America – National Theatre, London

Writer: Tony Kushner
Director: Marianne Elliott
Reviewer: Glen Pearce

As an increasingly bitter election campaign begins to be fought, it is timely that Tony Kushner’s epic Angels In America receives an epic revival at the National Theatre. When initially staged at the same venue 25 years ago, the themes of tolerance, sexuality, religious belief and mental illness may have seemed radical, but a quarter of a century on, while the stigma of HIV may have somewhat lessened, the concerns raise in Kushner’s vastly ambitious work are still prevalent. As the country struggles anew with views of identity and faith, Marianne Elliot’s revelatory and confident production seems not just a timely revival but a vital one.

It’s a revival that has garnered headline news, thanks in part to its star casting and the sell-out show has become one of the hottest tickets of the season, despite its seven and a half hour running time, albeit split over two parts. In theory, both parts. Millennium Approaches and Perestroika can be viewed independently, it is, however, the epic sweep and bold ambition of seeing both parts in one setting that brings most reward.

A show of multiple threads, at the heart are three overlapping central story arcs. One couple’s struggle to come to terms with the diagnosis of AIDS, a Mormon couple coming to terms with the husband’s sexuality and the wife’s mental health issues, and a high-profile lawyer facing the realisation that, despite his influence, his contacts can’t do anything about his all too real mortality.

Elliot’s managing of the three arcs is impeccable, slowly revealing the overlapping layers in Kushner’s opus. What starts off as small, intimate individual tales expand into interwoven global themes. And as we journey from darkness, through the very pit of despair into light the staging also journeys. Small scale triptychs using a trio of interlocking revolves dissolve until the entire stage (and wings and scene dock) of the cavernous Lyttleton stage is utilised.

It’s a staging that combines the epic sweep but also recognises that at its heart’ this is also a deeply intimate story.

What though becomes breathtaking in Elliot’s bravura production is that intimacy and the deeply human nature on show. As multiple characters grapple with their sexuality, mental health and the spectre of death we begin to understand the true human cost. As scenes overlap and the barley concealed pain rises to the surface, it becomes raw and visceral. All human life is here as the saying goes, but here that human life is writ large, warts and all.

Tempering the angst is a surprisingly large amount of humour, often dark but also offering a refreshing relief to the serious subject. Its beautifully balanced humour; laughs delivered just when needed to carry the audience through, but never at the cost of dramatic impact. As the piece darkens, one begins to notice that the laughter has subsided and we’ve been drawn in as a collective whole, hooked onto the sheer power of the action on stage. It’s almost as if watching some great symphonic work, Elliot conducting her instruments to pull focus on just the right part of the orchestra with just the right tempo.

It’s a world-class orchestra that has been assembled for this epic. What is evident from Kushner’s masterful writing, is that each character has been carefully considered, each drawn with a depth regardless of how big or small their part. From the most fleeting to the central protagonists, each is a beautifully conceived, even often painfully flawed, creation. It gives the 14-strong ensemble a solid base from which to work.

Nathan Lane’s comic pedigree is in no doubt, as he delivers a masterclass in the timing of witty one-liner put-downs as acidic lawyer Roy Cohn, but there’s also palpable pain behind the bluster. Lane is mesmerising, constantly in motion, a man battling both his past and his future. We may not approve of the ideology of the man but we can empathise and mourn for his pain.

Pain is something that Andrew Garfield’s Prior Walter knows only too well. Even before his life-changing diagnosis of HIV and AIDS, one gets the sense that this is a man who thrives on pain. Garfield’s reading could so easily verge into caricature and stereotype, a flamboyant, overly camp, a former drag queen with a penchant for breaking into quotes from the Wizard of Oz. Its a character far removed from his Lycra-clad time as Spider-Man, but Garfield revels in the anguish, pulling out every spec of fear, doubt and vulnerability. It’s a performance so raw, so real, that it’s hard to resist the urge to run onto stage, embrace him and reassure him everything will be alright.

With two already commanding performances on stage, it would be easy for other characters to be overshadowed, but here there’s an equality of casting that almost spoils the viewer in its richness. Russell Tovey’s tormented Mormon  Republican, repressed, Reagan-supporting lawyer is a tender portrait of a man’s inner battle between faith and desire, while James McArdle’s Louis is a carefully balanced reverse battle, tempering desire with a growing faith.

It is, however, perhaps Denise Gough’s Harper that claims the richest of rich feasts. A woman frustrated by her husband’s lack of interest in her, her overwhelming desire for a baby and the oppressive expectations of her faith, Gough’s Harper is not so much a ticking bomb waiting to go off, but a bomb that is already exploding. There’s such a flow of emotional energy flowing out of Gough that its almost too painful to watch. Anguished cries interspersed with increasingly surreal hallucinations, a chilling yet human response to mental pain.

Of course, there is much more at work. Kushner’s work tackles a much broader sweep of faith, nation, self belief and prejudice. Visitations from sex-fuelled Angels and political treatises may occasionally stretch the credibility, but prophecy and dogma are all part of the human journey.

And at the end of seven and a half hours of drama, there is a real sense of journey. As the stage empties and Walter Prior, under house and working lights, absolves our sins, we reflect on the shared journey we have undertaken. “The Great Work begins!” proclaims Prior in a final flourish. In Angels In America, the National Theatre has indeed produced a great work, a modern masterpiece masterfully revived for our time.

Runs until 19 August 2017 | Image: Helen Maybanks

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