It’s generally good to mark an anniversary with an event and so I’d been holding off watching my next show until I reached a particular milestone. Almost unbelievably it’s my 600th production since I started reviewing online. Granted some of this 600 have been remarkably brief but that’s certainly not the case here. At nearly eight hours it’s the main reason publication today is so late. Perhaps you thought I had finally given up, in which case sorry to disappoint; but thanks for your patience.
Tony Kushner’s Angels In America has achieved almost legendary status in its author’s own lifetime and the National Theatre’s production from 2017 is an as epically realised fantasia as the subtitle implies. The narrative across this pair of plays (so actually numbers 600 and 601) Millennium Approaches and Perestroika trace the onset, development and effect of AIDS on a group of New Yorkers in the mid-1980s as their lives and trajectories intertwine. While sometimes the narrative is straightforward, often it veers into high flown symbolism and staged metaphor which makes it both a thrilling and thought provoking watch which has been showered with awards – deservedly so. The full resources of the National seem to have been deployed in what turns out to be an unashamedly theatrical event. Scenery (Ian MacNei) glides and whirls on and off in a complicated dance pattern. Snowstorms, rain and thunderstorms are deployed and the scenes in heaven take place on a stage stripped back to the wings. Paule Constable’s lighting is electrifying, and Adrian Sutton’s epic music score wouldn’t sound out of place in a Spielberg spectacular. Orchestrating all this is Marianne Elliott who, as director, once again demonstrates the power to astonish in this thrilling blend of reality and artificiality.
The actors are straight out of the top drawer with the core cast of eight playing a lead role, various other secondary roles and ultimately the titular angels. There are two bona fide Hollywood stars in Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane both demonstrating they are more than able to command attention on the stage. Garfield uses every facet of his skill to make Prior Walter (the beating heart of the drama) a character of many shades and hues, consistently delivers lines which bring the house down and quietly builds sympathy for his plight and admiration of his resilience. Meanwhile Lane’s performance as real life lawyer Roy Cohn is coruscating in its venom and bile; it’s a million miles away from his usual comic characters. Russell Tovey and Denise Gough are, as ever, on blistering form as Joe and Harper Pitt the Mormon couple who find out a lot about each other and themselves during the narrative arc. Tovey magnificently charts his character’s gradual change of stance as he comes to openly acknowledge what he can barely admit to himself. Gough handles the surrealism of Harper’s visions as though they are the most natural thing in the world. It’s an inspired pairing and one that might be usefully repeated in other plays. James McArdle as Louis has one of the emails a clear line that be drawn from the Reagan era when the play is set through to that of the recently departed Trump). In many another show I’d be singling McArdle out for particular praise but it’s a mark of the strength of this production that he is just one among many. Indeed, it’s very tempting to list everybody in the play and just add the word “superb” after each one…. and so I will. Nathan Stewart-Jarret – superb, Amanda Lawrence – superb and Susan Brown – superb!
As the two plays progress they become increasingly high flown – and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. I rather preferred part one which seemed more sure of where it was going and in which the writing and structure were rather tighter. The second part had the air of a spoken grand opera about it and was in imminent danger of becoming the equivalent of one of those nineteenth century novels criticised by Henry James as “large, loose, baggy monsters” (mind you, he was one to talk). The sections involving the angel are highly creative in their staging (Elliott obviously took a lot away from helming War Horse) and look fantastic – again in both senses – but the sense of spectacle tends to obscure the narrative content and “messages” which are being put over. By contrast the more prosaic, earth bound scenes are effective just because of their simplicity. Angels In America more than deserves its place near the top of the canon of modern drama and I doubt there will ever be a more comprehensively successful staging than this. If you have time to watch at one go, then fill your boots. If not each of the two parts splits neatly into three sections so it might make a nice change from all those box sets you’ve been bingeing on. Whatever way you approach it, prepare yourself for an absolute treat.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks
Angels In America is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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