Angels in America at the National Theatre
Turns out it takes around seven and a half hours to reach heaven – including intervals. That may sound like a slog, but have no fear: the National Theatre’s production of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner’s messy masterpiece, carries celestial clout.
This is the great American tapestry. Without ever losing sight of the people at the heart of the piece Kushner weaves something truly epic. Every pillar of the country’s history gets a look in: its immigrant spine merges with its religious identify; sexuality clashes with a nasty political climate scarily like our own; and race and gender snarl at the peripheries.
Director Marianne Elliott makes sure Kushner’s balance between small-scale emotion and world-shaking consequence never wavers. It is striking how different she makes the play’s two parts – Millennium Approaches and Perestroika – feel. For much of the former Ian MacNeil’s stage is comprised of revolving islands, windows providing glimpses at the misery contained within as a giant metal America looms overhead. This is swept away as the first part ends and the second begins, the characters now inhabiting a much more fluid cosmic realm. This visual shift accompanies Kushner’s move from the domestic to the wide-screen, a lens so grand that it just about grazes God.
And oh my, what an ensemble. Andrew Garfield is a revelation. His Prior – battling AIDS and abandonment – is joyously unashamed of who he is, a rare quality in this cast of self-deluders. Humour is his defence mechanism and he uses it unsparingly, lacerating those around him, head tilted back and jaw clenched. It’s an image of strength and pain, of fear and ferocity. When he cracks, so do the audience.
Then there are the Mormons. Denise Gough’s Harper is both manic and the sanest person on stage, her clarity of vision only matched by Prior’s; it is no surprise that the pair can access a higher plain of existence. Perpetually clad in a dreary buttoned up coat, Russell Tovey captures Joe’s suppressed fury and emotional ineptitude, his inability to fully confront who he is and the damage it does to those around him.
While Republican lawyer Roy Cohn is the most transparently monstrous character – though it is hard to truly hate Nathan Lane, however splenetic – it is James McArdle’s Louis who is perhaps the least likeable. He is sanctimonious and self-justifying, representing America’s innate aversion to the sick (just look at the healthcare repeal passed during the press night). It is a testament to McArdle’s performance that he still manages elicit sympathy as he shows the limits of a person’s love.
The list goes on. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s nurse Belize is the fiercest and funniest character in the entire play – no mean feat. Susan Brown puts in a chameleonic shift, her Ethel Rosenberg more than a match for the bedridden Cohn. And Amanda Lawrence turns herself into a human puppet, a filthy angel in every sense of the word.
It is nigh on impossible to pin down more than a slither of Angels in America; it is less watched than experienced, taking root somewhere inside and never letting go. Pity the plays that have to follow this.
Photo: Helen Maybanks
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is at the National Theatre from 4th May until 19th August 2017, for further information or to book visit here.