Tag Archives: Marianne Elliott

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic

Death of a Salesman - Young Vic

With high-quality Arthur Miller revivals across the West End this Spring, the arrival of his much-revived 1949 tale of travelling salesman Willy Loman and his family at the Young Vic has elicited much expectation, not least because celebrated director Marianne Elliott is at the helm. Good direction can often go unnoticed, when the play flows seamlessly or builds the requisite tension and emotional investment for an audience the writer is often credited, but good direction gets to the heart of the play, amplifying and clarifying its themes and resonances. And then there are the directors you do notice, the ones who see beyond the text and its history of performance to entirely change our perspective on the work, these are the visionaries.

We are lucky enough to have a handful of truly visionary directors working regularly in the West End today, all of whom have produced shows in the last few months. Love or loathe their work – and the burden of their approach is to be so divisive – it has a distinctive and recognisable style of its own and is unlike anything else you will see. Ivo van Hove is one such director, liberating the classics like Hedda Gabler and A View from the Bridge from their set-based imprisonment while introducing cinematic techniques into his stage translations of Network and All About Eve. Jamie Lloyd has transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter over many years, not least in the ground-breaking Pinter at the Pinter season and a moving new version of Betrayal, while his take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita this summer will be something to see.

Female directors too are carving a path to visionary status, with Rebecca Frecknall, though early in her career, finding her own style in the astounding Summer and Smoke, followed by a solid revival of Three Sisters. But it is Elliott who has surprised us again and again, not just changing the way theatre is made in her management of technique and production scale, but also upending our perspective of a well-known work with one radical, but fairly canny, decision. When Elliott approached Stephen Sondheim for permission to change the gender of the protagonist in Company the result was inspirational, leading to a long West End run and a new life for a show that felt as though it had always been written that way.

Now, working with Miranda Cromwell, her approach to Death of a Salesman is doing the same, shifting Miller’s perspective on a working family struggling to find their place while reaching for the fabled American Dream. In Elliott and Cromwell’s new version which opens to the press on Thursday, the action takes place in the home of an African American family for the first time, which in some respects makes no difference to the text – suggesting the universality of Miller’s themes and their easy transposition to all kinds of family life – but simultaneously offers a new angle to view this familiar story that, with little change, brings new and meaningful tones to the dialogue.

Miller’s play, on one level, is about ageing and the shift of responsibility and power from parent to child played out within the family, as well as in the commerce-based subplot in which the titular salesman Willy’s ability to perform comes into question. But, the continued infantilization of his two sons, Biff and Happy, means neither is ready to assume responsibility for the household despite being well into their 30s. The intricate balance of fears, resentments and false illusions that connect the Lomans is particularly well created in this production as these men are forced to confront who they really are.

All of the Lomans are fixated on a period 15-years previously when popular eldest son Biff was captain of the school football team and expected to go to College – strongly implied here that he would have been the first member of the family to do so. Willy too was a successful salesman, well-known and welcomed amongst his clients in a time of great prosperity for the family. A flunked maths test and an unknown breach sends the entire family in a different direction; Death of a Salesman is the story of the slow and painful death of these dreams and, as ever with Miller, the acceptance of the truth that remains.

Elliott and Cromwell’s production is full of innovation and while it’s not quite coming together yet, it has all of the building blocks in place to reach where it needs to be in a few performance’s time. With the RSC’s recent production still present in the mind, designer Anna Fleischle eschews the two-story home we’ve seen so many times before and instead opts for a granite tomb-like single floor, with raised platforms to denote different rooms. A barely visible rear staircase shrouded in darkness is used subtly by the characters to occasionally suggest action on the mainstage is now taking place on a different storey. Most visually arresting however are the items of furniture, lighting and windows suspended above the stage and lowered into place to create different rooms.

It’s an impressionistic approach that yields considerable insight into the themes of the play, the characters’ attachment to material possessions as indicators of success, and most especially to the physical home that contains their family history, which they have spent decades slowly paying-off. With almost continuous action and few obvious scene breaks, what Fleischle suggests with this flowing scenery is the tantalising yet illusory nature of these symbols of achievement (both family and objects), that as easily as they lower into place they are removed, and it is matriarch Linda Loman who clearly draws on this point in the play’s pointed conclusion.

The sparring use of music is one of the most notable aspects of this new production which under the musical directorship of Femi Temowo uses the African-American setting to bring additional layers of tragedy by aligning it with the pain and storytelling of mid-century jazz, blues and, at times, even gospel. It opens with cast members singing a sober melody, occasionally lines are sung softly for emphasis while the conversation continues above it, and it ends with an equally sorrowful lament that feels poignant and exciting as a technique. The emotive quality of jazz and blues in particular seems to suit the action without being intrusive while reinforcing the call away from New York to the south and a different kind of living which is one of Miller’s main points of exploration.

Perhaps more than any production of recent times, this version of Death of a Salesman with its hard city surface and not a hint of green, draws out the character’s yearning for the pastoral world and the cleaner, more physical life it offers. This is particularly true for Biff who speaks with passion for his work on a cattle farm and the satisfaction of being within the rhythms of nature and the earth. But other characters also muse on the wonders of life beyond Brooklyn as Willy recalls happy times travelling across New England admiring the countryside which speaks directly to his soul in Wendell Pierce’s performance, and despite his wife’s insistence and the exhaustion that affects his mind, he is reluctant to return to New York for good.

The artificiality of the American Dream and the life it creates for people cooped-up in cities, buying status-based conveniences they don’t really need has major consequences for Willy Loman. Working with Pierce, Elliott and Cromwell create a strange dreamlike quality to Willy’s memories that frequently intrude on the present day. His increasing bewilderment marks a crisis point in the lives of the Loman family, one in which the provider is no longer capable, a reality from which the family seek to protect him and themselves. This schism is given physical form using a series of flashbulbs to cut between fragments of memory, interspersed with slow-motion sports posing and movement as he remembers his son’s heroism and converses in his mind with his own brother Ben about making money. The hyper-real nature of these sections though deliberately stylised are a little awkward, veering into cheesy at times, and although Miller’s message is clear, there is work to do here to increase the efficacy of the scenes.

The production is on much firmer ground with its compelling real-world conversations, and in the sympathetic portrayal of Willy’s breakdown. There is no King Lear-style grand dementia but smaller shifts in personality and lucidity that, as the story unfolds, claim more of Willy’s mind. Pierce gives a meaningful and compassionate performance as a man who has no idea what is happening to him but implies the frustration others experience in caring for his present condition as well as the intimidating man he once was. The rupture in his family began long before, so Pierce adeptly manages this complex bundle of character traits from different eras of his life very well, but as aspects of the fiery antagonist that occasionally reappears with Biff becomes clouded with mutterings about the professional respect he once enjoyed and a desire to escape it all, Pierce’s performance becomes increasingly saddening.

As with previous productions, Biff is probably the most interesting member of the Loman family, and Arinzé Kene captures the duality at the heart of the character. In the early scenes as he reconnects with his brother, the youthful enthusiasm for the rustic work he adores lights him up, but as events play out the pull of his sports-star past and the burden of his parents’ expectations weigh heavy. The intensity Kene brings to the exchanges with his family are excellent, but full of rage as the self-appointed bearer of truth, Kene’s Biff is riven with his own sense of failure, at 34 still hiding from the realities of adulthood, the catalyst for change in his family as he tries to throw off the past in the quest to discovery who he’s meant to be.

Martins Imhangbe as the womanising Happy and Sharon D. Clarke as Linda complete the family unit, with the ever-reliable Clarke bringing texture to the role of devoted wife. Full of pity for her husband and the cruel hand life has dealt him, she’s determined to defend him to the end, even if it means losing her sons – and Clarke gets to use her beautiful soulful voice which helps to flesh-out a small role, suggesting her stoicism while carving out her own motivation by linking to her faith.

Despite being set in what seems to be the 1950s, the Second World War and the implication that both sons may have fought doesn’t frame the Young Vic’s production with the same kind of inevitable intensity that drives All My Sons down the road at the Old Vic, and at 3 hours and 15 minutes it is overlong. Yet, with a focus on “not fitting in” or belonging to this urban world of workers and nepotism, Miller’s play is slightly re-orientated to subtly expose the very different challenges and barriers for African-American families in this period. At this early stage the many well-crafted elements haven’t fully woven satisfactorily together but even if they don’t, with visionary director Marianne Elliott leading the way with such insight, it’s more than enough that this eye-opening production exists at all.

Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Company – Gielgud Theatre

Company - Gielgud Theatre

The world may have changed considerably since the premiere of Company in 1970 but two things are very much the same; first the unceasing expectation that all women in their 20s and 30s are desperate for marriage and children, and the second is audiences’ enduring love of Stephen Sondheim. Unsurprisingly, the two have often gone hand-in-hand, and as you age the meaning of Sondheim’s work seems to deepen as real life and expectation, truth and illusion start to diverge. Never really out of fashion, this last year major theatres were given an extraordinary reminder of the power of Sondheim’s work when the National Theatre revived Follies with a generation-defining production filled with bittersweet regret and heart-breaking poignancy. Now Marianne Elliott brings Company to the West End with a production that may well change the musical forever.

Gender-swapped productions are fairly commonplace in theatre-land but, as with Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse the trick is to use what could be a gimmick to reveal new and valuable insights into well-worn productions. But few so completely transform their original that seeing it for the first time you would never know it hadn’t been written that way, and it is the highest compliment to Elliott and her team that this version of Company, that plays with gender and sexuality, is not even seamless, it’s just entirely right, as though Sondheim had a female lead and at least one same-sex couple in mind when he put pen to paper more than four decades ago.

Elliott’s triumphant production works so well because the character of Bobbie makes perfect sense in 2018, and while a male protagonist would be fine, arguably the pressures on men to settle down in their mid-30s would feel considerably less convincing than it did in more conservative times. Biologically and socially, however, women are endlessly questioned and judged for their choices and, in a world that still encourages young women to only value their accomplishments if they manage to attract a partner, a 35-year old female Bobbie happily clinging to her single life while unduly pressured by her married friends feels incredibly pertinent and frustratingly familiar. All kinds of relationships are now acceptable with anyone, but a woman who wants to be single and childless is still an alarming prospect for a society peddling a Noah’s Ark mindset.

Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie just makes perfect sense and in Elliott’s production we see how feeling that external pressure at 35 becomes a moment for reflection and assessment of her life so far. What follows is a non-linear collection of scenes, fragments of information about the surrounding social structure which our beleaguered heroine steps in and out of – notably Bobbie is the only character not to use the door into the various family homes but breaks the imaginary fourth wall to step directly out of one scenario into another.

Sondheim uses the same technique he applied to Follies, merging memories with the present day, but has a thematic rather than a directly narrative purpose, asking the audience to see through Bobbie’s eyes as she tries to determine the pros and cons of a settled relationship. Each of the couples in her friendship group are given their own song and identity that takes Bobbie through the very different approaches on offer – from the sweet and devoted rough and tumble of Sarah and Harry who finish each other’s sentences, correct anecdote details and find time to wrestle while singing The Little Things You do Together, to the equally devoted marriage of Jenny and David who have a slightly different power balance, tempering their fun with sober restraint and responsibility, while Susan and Peter find themselves drifting apart.

Two very different models deliver more pathos, first with caustic friend Joanne, married for the third time to a younger man and refusing to believe he feels any genuine love for her (which he does), and finally same-sex couple Paul and his boyfriend Jamie who debates heading down the aisle in one of the show’s finest sequences ‘I’m Not Getting Married Today’. Each pairing has a moment in the spotlight and a theme song which whirl around Bobbie, leaving her feeling awkward, sad and a million miles from wanting to settle down herself.

Crucial to the success of what could be a rather choppy experience is Marianne Elliott’s overarching vision for the show, which, working with set and costumes designed by Bunny Christie, unifies the disparate elements to provide a memorable visual spectacle and an intimate story of one woman at a crisis point. Borrowing a touch of the Angels in America aesthetic, we see Bobbie’s bright, free, pink neon-lit world clashing with the warm pastel tones reserved for the couples, pulling our protagonist in opposing directions – towards and away from the life she has full of socialising, casual relationships and freedom, contrasted with the American ideal of domestic perfection represented in the pale cosiness of her friends’ houses. Bobbie, dressed in brightest red, stands in the middle weighing-up her true self against social expectation.

There are some wonderfully comic scenes as our heroine tries to choose between her three boyfriends. Together they sing the 50s-esque You Could Drive a Person Crazy delivering a routine inspired by wholesome girl-groups of the era, a nice piece of gender-mixed choreography to emphasise their subordinate role in Bobbie’s life. Individually they get a mini-storyline as Bobbie sizes them up for commitment and each time coming-up short. There is plenty of comedy in these scenarios as nervy in-flight steward Andy (Richard Fleesman), geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young) and self-loving rocker PJ (George Blagden) equally try to work out if Bobbie is the one for them.

Elliott’s direction smoothly charts a path between all of these varied narratives, moving interconnected neon-rimmed boxes together to create a continuous apartment, single rooms in multiple houses, a couple of subway carriages and even a whole terraced street. To see innovative stagecraft like this outside of somewhere like the National Theatre is really inspiring, and after the rather static Imperium here at the Gielgud over the summer, it is important to see that with a bit of imagination, even the oldest theatres can be transformed into vibrant, living spaces that serve the ends of the play rather than asking the work to adapt to the venue.

The performances are every bit as delightful and polished as the visual spectacle, with the cast creating a convincing set of well-worn friends who live vicariously through their singleton. Gathered for her birthday – a scene which punctuates the show – there is both a unity and in the individual scenes a love for Bobbie that goes hand-in-hand with the genuine concern for her future. But this is her show, and Rosalie Craig captures well the internal division in Bobbie’s mind, knowing that life she is living is the one for her, but nonetheless succumbing, at least momentarily, to the panic exerted by her friends.

Craig has a natural comic timing, often reacting with exasperation or awkwardness to the odd behaviour of those around her. A particularly entertaining scene in bed with Andy, sees Bobbie’s male friends perform Poor Baby / Tick Tock while she entices him to perform, all the while listening to the voices she thinks are in her head. The staging of the solos in a vast empty space are perhaps a little underwhelming, and while the point is that all the madness seeps away leaving Bobbie alone, they just lack dynamism. Craig performs them extremely well wringing full meaning from both Someone is Waiting and Marry Me a Little but visually they need a little help. The famous finale Being Alive is wonderful though and Craig builds to it through the show and within the song musing on the emotional shelter Bobbie has created around herself and where she goes from here.

Apart from a few well-timed lines, it’s not until quite near the end of the show that the audience gets to see Patti Lupone’s Joanne at close quarters in the song Ladies Who Lunch. It’s a lovely crowd-pleaser for fans of the eminent Broadway star, but Lupone isn’t in Company to rest on her laurels, bringing a poignancy that fleshes out a relatively small support role. The hard exterior and feigned exhaustion with society is clearly just armour in Lupone’s performance, protecting her from the deep vulnerability that comes from truly loving Larry (Ben Lewis) and fear of ever losing him.

Each of the couples is equally memorable; as expected Mel Giedroyc hits all the comic beats as Sarah while Gavin Spokes reveals a wonderful voice as he continues his West End success as Harry, after appearing as Major Ingram in Quiz earlier this year. Jennifer Saayeng’s sensible Jenny has one eye on adult responsibility keeping husband David (Richard Henders) from having too much fun, alongside Daisy Mawood’s Susan and Ashley Campbell’s Peter keeping up appearances as their marriage crumbles.

In a production that has shaken-up the way we look at established musical characters, it is Jonathan Bailey playing the gender-swapped Jamie that almost steals the entire show. Such a wonderful performer capable of great depth and sensitivity as the beautiful The York Realist at the Donmar showed earlier this year, Bailey’s big moment happens when his character gets cold feet on his wedding day. An absolute joy delivered at breath-taking speed reflecting Jamie’s desperate panic, and several attempts to hide in various unlikely kitchen crannies, Bailey deservedly receives a big ovation for a wonderful number that leaves you wanting more.

It may lack the desperate ache of Follies, but this version of Company may well change the musical forever – where it works for the story, gender and sexuality in classic musicals could become more fluid, allowing theatre-makers free reign to reimagine well-known shows for a new generation. Like Shakespeare, Sondheim deals with universal experiences and emotions, giving his work a timelessness and broad applicability that not only makes Elliott’s imaginative production entirely consistent with Sondheim’s original intent, it is also a great night out.

Company is at the Gielgud Theatre until 22 December and tickets start at £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Angels in America: Perestroika – National Theatre

So, at the end of Part One we left the characters of Angels in America on the cusp of new opportunities and in Perestroika playwright Tony Kushner explores the consequences of their choices in what becomes a sprawling journey through the identity politics of 80s America. First performed a year after Millennium Approaches, Perestroika is both more elaborate and in some ways a more substantial theatrical experience than its predecessor which is increasingly apparent in the National Theatre’s new production.

Running at well over 4 hours in previews with both parts combined being a near 8-hour commitment, this is a significant ask for an audience. Yet, intimidating as that may be, fluid direction means that scenes flow smoothly into one another and even with the first two acts being a substantial 90 minutes each Perestroika flies by, almost more easily than part one. A long show is always a risk, with the fear that actorly indulgence takes precedence over audience comfort, but for once with Angels in America it is a risk that pays off handsomely giving the viewer the chance to see something with an epic sweep that takes in issues of national and personal identity, religion and politics, while examining a set of distinct characters in satisfying detail.

If you haven’t seen part one then there will be some minor spoilers ahead but Perestroika begins exactly where Millennium Approaches left off, as an Angel crashes through the ceiling of Prior Walter’s bedroom and warns him that God has abandoned heaven, and much of what follows for Prior is a mixture of hallucinations and intrusions into real life as he copes with the fallout from his AIDs diagnosis and the end of his relationship with Louis. But things get more complicated when The Angel makes him a reluctant prophet who must stop mankind from moving, the only thing that can save heaven.

Meanwhile Louis is now in a relationship with Joe but struggles to overcome the guilt he feels for abandoning Prior and seeks an opportunity to meet face to face. Now in his first homosexual relationship, Joe becomes quickly and deeply attached to Louis but as faith and work come between them, Joe begins to crave the simplicity and stability he had with wife Harper who finds herself stuck working with her mother-in-law in a Mormon Visitors’ centre. And over in the hospital, vicious lawyer Roy uses his influence to secure a wonder-drug but he declines rapidly, and as his health fails he’s given a chance to see life and death as it really is.

Focusing heavily on Prior, Part Two is about restitution and the acceptance of self which allows each of the characters to find some kind of peace with themselves. Although not without incident and a complex journey for all, it feels more intimate than Part One and asks more direct questions about the quality of the life each person wants to live, while still touching on those big picture concepts of nationhood and faith. This strikes more of a chord partly because the audience already knows the characters quite well and becomes more invested in their trajectory, but also there is a sense of joy which runs through this second production that make Kushner’s message both engaging and genuinely life affirming.

One of the main reasons for that is because the plot of Perestroika also contains more large-scale hallucinatory episodes which give the National a chance to display its showmanship as bizarre flights of fancy create an engaging spectacle for the audience. Director Marianne Elliott’s War Horse experience brings a skilled integration of puppetry into representing Prior’s Angel, as the huge tatty wings are operated independently by a small team, while the Angel herself, played by Amanda Lawrence, is depicted as a shabby and possibly dangerous presence. The combined design of Finn Caldwell’s puppets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costume reinforce the idea of heaven gone to ruin in the absence of God, while there is something of the harpy about The Angel which make sense of Prior’s concerns.

This idea of magical realism is given a grubby façade, so later when Prior is given a choice between the fate of the Angels and that of man, it happens in a bleak sci-fi heaven rather than the fluffy white clouds we’re used to, while a spectacular diorama about a Mormon journey at the Visitors’ Centre inserts Joe into another of Prior and Harper’s joint hallucinations. It’s a brilliant creation, perfectly capturing dummies in a scene so familiar to old-fashioned museums, and were just a bit staid, while reiterating ideas about the different faces people wear in public and the excising of ordinary women from religious history. The scale and imagination displayed, and the way puppetry has been seamlessly woven into the production are a real high point of Perestroika and as scenes become increasingly crazy, there’s real fun to be had in just watching the show take shape in unexpected ways.

While Ian McNeil’s set felt too pedestrian in Millennium Approaches, the removal of the three revolves in Perestroika means the action flows much more smoothly and helps its long run time pass quickly. Scenes merge effortlessly, as hospitals, houses, parks and other realms easily give way to one another, allowing the audience to be swept between opposite places without confusion. McNeil outlines some scenes in bright boxes of neon light which create some memorable stage pictures, while a series of stage hands move sets into position dressed as dark crawling creatures adding to the idea that not only is disease raging unseen through the community but that lives are being controlled by bigger, possibly more nefarious, forces.

Like Part One, the characterisation is distinct and brought vividly to life by a talented cast. Again, Andrew Garfield is exemplary as Prior in what is certainly one of his best performances and probably one to watch for next year’s award ceremonies. In this production, Prior moves on from his initial anguish to discover greater inner reserves, coping independently with his condition while Garfield gives him an unexpected strength when he finally comes face-to-face with Louis again. In a wide-ranging performance, Garfield is hilarious as Prior faces the absurdity of The Angel and plays the prophet as a Norma Desmond-like-figure, but still he finds great sensitivity in a burgeoning relationship with Joe’s mother Hannah (Susan Brown) and in the hope that grows out of his sufferings.

Nathan Lane’s Roy is the big surprise in Perestroika drawing the audience into his performance and eliciting considerable sympathy for his destruction. Confined mostly to a hospital bed throughout, his fear and loneliness are palpable, and while he was a terrible person the reduction of all that scheming, manoeuvring and grasping for power to nothing is something Lane makes genuinely pitiable. Particularly enjoyable in this production is Roy’s belligerent relationship with his nurse Belize who being both black and openly gay are a challenge to Roy’s views. Yet Nathan Stewart-Jarrett weaves carefully between Belize’s duty of care as a nurse, wanting to help his patient, and sardonic attacks on Roy’s nonsense beliefs. With perfect comic timing, these scenes are among the best and most hilarious in this show.

Similarly, excellent is Susan Brown whose small role as Joe’s mother becomes much more fundamental here as she crosses paths with Prior and, having rejected her own son’s sexuality, is drawn into the life of the young man she takes to the hospital, developing a tender affection for him that demonstrates her re-education in the big city. Denise Gough’s Harper has less stage time in Part Two but, like Prior, she develops a an inner steel and independence that makes her ultimate quest for freedom from her unsuccessful marriage and from her fantasy world convincing, with the audience willing her to find a happier life.

With Perestroika performed a little less often than Millennium Approaches in the run-up to press night, it’s not quite as polished as it will be. With that in mind, Russell Tovey and James McArdle as Joe and Louis will find greater depth in their characters which should come as the run progresses and as they perform the full show a few more times. Tovey is extremely good in the early sections as Joe becomes clingy and certain he’s in love after only 3 weeks, but has more to give as the relationship sours and he is left alone, while McArdle captures the speed of Louis’s wordy delivery, his barrier against the world, but, as with Part One, has to connect more with the way in which his guilt and grief lead him to a greater understanding of himself.

Taken together, this two-part production of Angels in America is a considerable triumph for the National Theatre in what is a memorable production. It successfully combines a huge scope that confronts big philosophical concepts with the small-scale story of a group of inter-connected New Yorkers dealing with a major health crisis in uncertain times. It will mature as the run continues allowing the performances to grow and expand, and whether you connect more to the political angst of Millennium Approaches, or, like me, the bonkers fantasy of Perestroika, this is 7.5 hours of epic theatre that will leave a lasting impression. And even 25 years on its message is one we still need to hear, tolerance, openness and understanding are the most important thing society can offer, whoever you are and wherever you come from. As Prior discovers, ultimately life is all we have and we must cling to it.

Angels in America is at The National Theatre until 19th August with both parts running in repertory with some two-play days. Tickets are mostly sold out but returns frequently appear on the National website, but tickets are also available via Friday Rush and a weekly ballot for £20 run by Delta. NT Live screenings will also take place from 20 July


Angels in America: Millennium Approaches – National Theatre

Angels in America - National Theatre

Concepts of individual or national identity are comprised of many different layers and aspects, each of which we’re mostly unaware of day-to-day. But in a year that asked countries all over Europe and the USA to consider what they value and who they want to be, the notion of what defines us and the kind of society we want to live in has revealed deep divisions, ones that show that however open, tolerant and welcoming we might have thought we were as nation, under the surface individual prejudices and fear are still a powerful driver. There is no better time, then, to revive Tony Kushner’s landmark two-part drama Angels in America that while nominally about AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s, has all kinds of contemporary points to make about concepts of identity and the social, religious and political influences that make up who we are.

Angels in America is something of a cultural phenomenon and when first premiered in the early 1990s, it forced not just a shake-up of attitudes to homosexuality but also to the way theatre could be used to tell difficult truths about how people were really living. The National Theatre’s original production remains a powerful memory for those who saw it, and such is its appeal that the decision to make a revival the centrepiece of the current season ensured it sold out rapidly – faster than Glastonbury apparently. The timing of Marianne Elliott’s new version, playing in repertory until June, fits our current social and political uncertainties and for a confident National Theatre buoyed by a run of successful productions, the revisit feels just right.

Kushner’s masterpiece divides into two separate plays, the first of which, Millennium Approaches (Perestroika will be reviewed next week) introduces the audience to three sets of characters living in New York whose lives are separately affected by AIDS and homosexuality, before slowly becoming entangled in each other’s stories. Joe (Russell Tovey) is a hard-working, clean-cut young lawyer and a committed Mormon, looking after his troubled wife Harper (Denise Gough) who cannot leave the house. Joe struggles to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality, challenged by his faith as his certainty about the world is tested by corrupting influences working with lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane). In the second narrative strand, Roy is an abusive powerful lawyer with many important friends who discovers he has AIDS. Refusing to associate himself with the powerless in society, Roy denies the truth, even to himself and pretends its liver cancer so he can retain his influence, while Louis (James McArdle), who also works in a law firm, struggles to come to terms with his boyfriend’s AIDS diagnosis abandoning Prior (Andrew Garfield) to his fate. While Louis’s guilt emerges through a series of political rants at his outsider status as a homosexual Jew, Prior suffers alone, his physical and emotional distress leading to a series of powerful hallucinations as something significant approaches.

One of the reasons Angels in America has made such a mark is not just its exposure of the human experience of AIDS and the fear it provoked in sufferers and their families, but also its much wider examination of American identity comprised of various strands of religious faith, social status, regional and city life, personal influence, control and power, and it’s no coincidence that it begins with a monologue about the hopeful arrival of immigrants to New York escaping persecution for a better life. Just what being an American means in a city full of people from all kinds of places is something that feels very pertinent and is explored in Marianne Elliott’s new production.

For a play with big themes, it is also a very intimate story of three sets of characters, and Elliott in the large Lyttelton space, has chosen to create three mini-revolving stages which serve as the separate apartments and offices so, at first, even when characters appear in each other’s narratives, it’s clear this is not their space. For the first of the three acts in Millennium Approaches, a series of grey booths, designed by Ian MacNeil, rotate to reveal a scene before another replaces them. It does make the action in this early part a little bit sticky as the slightly cumbersome rotations slow down the pace and means, for the most part, no more than a third of the stage is in use – although increasingly characters from other scenes remain in place on stage in the dark.

But in acts two and three, while the rotation remains, scenes are gradually played across one another reflecting the way in which the lives of the characters are being increasingly drawn together, which then adds pace and flow to the action, allowing the audience to become more deeply involved. This works especially well in a layered section as events in Joe and Harper’s marriage come to a crisis point at the same time as Louis and Prior’s relationship. As the couples argue, the protagonists are shown across one another, with one seemingly standing in the opposite scene to reflect the similarity of experience for the heterosexual and homosexual pair, with each leaving behind the weaker member to forge something for themselves. It’s a device that works extremely effectively here and though used sparingly, it emphasises the more lacklustre silos of act one.

It’s a play that contains a number of dream sequences and these can be quite tricky to reproduce on stage, either looking clunky or out of kilter with the rest of the action. However, Elliott’s production manages these with aplomb, using the renowned Paule Constable’s coloured lighting design to give a sense of fantasy that becomes enjoyably elaborate as the production progresses. Using these markers, it’s always clear to the audience what’s real and what isn’t without having to awkwardly signpost it or distracting from the more naturalistic style of the rest of the production. The design team seems to have gone for an 80s meets 2017 aesthetic overall, and while it hinders the flow in the first hour, the design increasingly supports the action leaving plenty of room to expand in the more hallucination-heavy Part Two: Perestroika.

With a wonderfully surprising and extremely memorable interpretation, Andrew Garfield leads the performances with an astonishing take on Prior Walter, who reveals the appearance of his first lesion early in the play to his boyfriend. Prior is an effeminate gay man and former Drag Queen, who despite his frail physique has considerably greater inner strength than any other character in the play. The perfect contrast to the weaker Louis, Garfield avoids camp stereotypes and delivers a sensitive and incredibly moving performance as someone facing an unknown struggle with resilience, but also dealing with a cruel abandonment by the person he trusted most.

This combination of bodily deterioration and emotional ravaging is very moving and Garfield, better known for his action hero roles in Spiderman and Hacksaw Ridge, is incredibly skilled at managing the transition between Prior’s fear of impending death and the more comedic moments of his fantasy sequences. Garfield’s interpretation is certainly something people will talk about when they remember this production and with Part 2 focusing more on his character it bodes well for the next edition.

By contrast James McArdle’s Louis doesn’t feel as though he’s quite settled into the character yet and, while he goes for the laugh, at several points he seems to underpower crucial insights. It is a complex role that has to balance the idea of personal liberation and needs – one of Kushner’s key themes in these plays – with societal expectations of doing the right thing in regards to others. Louis cannot cope with Prior’s condition, the illness terrifies him and he flees, so the rest of the Part One is about him dealing with the sense of guilt his actions create and how his attempt to bury his head in the sand with new lovers and political rants is really a manifestation of the guilt that plagues him continually. And all of this is mixed in with an outsider status which comes from his Jewish roots and his homosexuality that continue to trouble him. Yet McArdle is still on the surface of some of these facets, throwing away references to the things he’s done, there’s humour and doubt but not quite enough self-loathing as there could be, which would give the performance a deeper connection to the ideas of Louis running from something that drives his story through the show.

By contrast, Joe is running to something, a new life, the one he should have had all along, and to a liberating concept of self-realisation. In what is a very contained performance by Russell Tovey, Joe’s struggles with the various external forces pressing him to change becomes increasingly compelling as the story unfolds. He rarely erupts but when he does it feels significant, while always retaining an overarching sense of Joe’s decency. Tovey elicits considerable sympathy for Joe who works hard but wrestles with the increasing instability of his wife, which becomes a burden he must ‘walk off’ each night, and the sense of duty instilled by his Mormon faith which he cannot overcome. Crucially Tovey shows us that pressure from his boss Roy to act unethically becomes a turning point for Joe whose inner life beings to emerge as he confronts his homosexuality. An offered risk leads to self-understanding, which sets-up considerably possibilities for Part Two.

Denise Gough as Harper appears largely in acts one and two, confined to her home by fear, buoyed along by various pills and unable to control elaborate hallucinations – one of which she even shares with Prior. While Gough could easily have replicated her recent award-winning turn as a drug and alcohol addicted celebrity in the National’s People, Places and Things, here she goes for something considerably more subtle, a woman trapped in what borders on an arranged marriage, unnerved by the modern world and heading willingly into her happier fantasy life. She cowers frequently in darkened rooms while her husband is out but appears lighter in the dreams that give her a freedom she cannot find in the real world.

Finally, formally uniting both sets of characters, Nathan Lane takes on the role of venal lawyer Roy who refuses to think of himself as part of the masses, and prides himself on the influence his powerful friends afford him. There is a sense of immortality and superiority which run through Lane’s excellent performance, and while Roy is pragmatic enough to know what’s really happening to him, he also takes refuge in fantasies, but ones he creates in the real world. He is a vicious character, behaving unethically to retain his sense of control, crushing his enemies and using his power without regret to retain his association with the right sets. Lane shows us a man steeped in corruption and without remorse, but blind to his own fragility. It’s not quite sympathy he evokes, but Lane creates a sadness that only the audience can see his naivety and the suppression of self that has created such a monster, and like Garfield when Lane is on stage Millennium Approaches really takes flight.

It’s a long play at over three hours, but in Elliott’s assured hands the action zips by in three hour-long sections. And while there are a few duff notes, not least the slightly awkward gender-swapped supporting roles as the female actors unsuccessfully become men, this feels like a worthy tribute to Kushner’s play and to the enduring memory of the original production. Whether you remember that first UK staging or come to it for the first time this year, Angels in America feels hugely relevant as we all try to figure out who we want to be. Millennium Approaches has set things up beautifully, so come back next week to see if Perestroika gives these characters the send-off they deserve.

Angels in America is at The National Theatre until 19th August with both parts running in repertory with some two-play days. Tickets are mostly sold out but returns frequently appear on the National website, but tickets are also available via Friday Rush and a weekly ballot for £20 run by Delta. NT Live screenings will also take place from 20 July.


Husbands and Sons – National Theatre

by Dean Chalkley

There’s a real momentum around gender equality and women’s history at the moment. With Suffragette asking us how far we’ve really come in a hundred years and numerous personalities speaking out about the gender pay gap both in Hollywood and in business, there’s a huge spotlight on this issue. In a timely piece of theatre, the National presents Husbands and Sons, a dramatisation of three D.H. Lawrence short stories told simultaneously, covering two days in a Nottinghamshire pit community. As so often with Lawrence the primary focus is on the women – the wives, daughters and mothers of coal miners whose suffering is played out across these stories drawing an overall picture of the different kinds of hardships they endured – suffering contained within the family unit and rarely shared even with their close-proximity neighbours.

Lawrence can be so insightful about women and has a particular sympathy with the matriarchs that govern small community life which is the most striking aspect of the National Theatre’s new production.  What makes this a valuable work is the way these three stories have been woven together to form a complete sense of the various lives going on and in particular a key Lawrenceian theme of difficult communication between men and women, especially married couples. In fact this is something that clearly unites the three stories, a frosty difficulty between all the couples represented while mother-son relationships become suffocating.

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd tells the story of Lizzie, tortured by her husband’s excessive drinking and womanising, and driven to resent her lot in life. Her only motivation is to protect her son and prevent him from becoming his father, but as Lizzie keeps house she’s frequently interrupted by her mother-in-law and a local pit electrician who has a crush on her. This is probably the most poignant of the three stories as we see Lizzie, played wonderfully by Anne-Marie Duff, suffering endless humiliations and neglect from her husband (Martin Marquez). The scene in which he arrives home roaring drunk with two prostitutes that he picked up at the local pub is particularly painful for Lizzie and Duff displays her outrage, humiliation and pride superbly. Even when Lizzie is offered escape there is always the sense in Duff’s tender portrayal that it won’t last and she’s fundamentally rooted by a sense of innate duty to her home and marriage that perhaps even death cannot shake.

Next door, A Colliers Friday Night will probably be the most recognisable Lawrence tale that reintroduces many of the themes and plot points of Sons and Lovers. The Lamberts are a pit family headed by the redoubtable matriarch Lydia whose love for her son sets him on a high road to another kind of life. But one Friday night the latent tensions in the family come to a head as Ernest’s (Johnny Gibbon) new self-determination clashes with his mother’s hopes for him and he must decide whether he wants to shake free of her. Julia Ford infuses Lydia with all the suffocating worry of a mother eager to see her favourite child succeed, but also her performance taps into questions about the nature of class as she looks down on her husband (Lloyd Hutchinson) despite his ‘providing’ for them and idolises her son’s hoped-for escape.

The Daughter-in-Law in the final home nicely unites both the themes of the other two pieces as we see a newly married couple trying to get used to each other and find balance. The class element is there again as Minnie Gascoigne has essentially married beneath her and brings her own money while trying to adapt to what she sees as lesser manners. Louise Brealey initially seems brittle and unsure of herself trying to navigate around this strange world – both of marriage and pit life – only compounded by another obstructive mother-son bond that prevents Luther (Joe Armstrong) from adapting to his new wife. As tensions between the couple come to a head Brealey shows Minnie finding unknown reserves of strength and dignity to fight both for her own individuality and ultimately for her man.

Previously performed as a trilogy, the decision to run them side by side, cutting from one home to the next, is a risky one, but a decision that pays off in not only increasing the tension in each story by leaving the audience hanging as we move to another home, but also in giving a clearer picture of this way of life, trapped so closely together in tiny homes where all kinds of human drama is being played out. What is perhaps most striking about this production, and therefore offers the most insight into Lawrence’s work, is how lonely these women are. Deprived of other ways to participate in the world, their sole purpose becomes about the husbands and sons of the title. They are almost entirely contained in their homes and even when they hear the problems next door (which Director Marianne Elliott cleverly has her actors react to) they don’t go to help; the women are entirely alone.

Each of these tales has a story but the overall effect is not plot driven but rather seeing the daily lives of this mining community and the toll it takes on the women at its heart. Seeing the parallels and themes emerge across the three houses becomes as much a part of the evening as finding out what happens to them all. Not everything is entirely successful – at more than three hours it’s a long haul but you do only begin to notice this towards the end, especially in a couple of moments when you think it’s finished but then more scenes start. Also bizarrely in a reasonably realistic looking production the decision to mime a lot of the action like opening and closing doors or taking off coats is very odd and sits uncomfortably with Lawrence’s emotional realism – surely someone at the National could have stumped up for a few coats and racks. I sat in the gallery so didn’t participate in the musical chairs of the interval which is supposed to give audiences a different perspective; maybe it does but I didn’t find staying in the same place detracted from what I saw in any way. But these are minor quibbles.

What these women have in common is their strength. For all the physical endurance of their menfolk in the pits, it is the women who make life happen, who keep a household together and who build communities to live in. Lawrence’s women are often something to admire and in these three central performances their determination, pride and resilience in the face of incredible and often dehumanising hardship is striking. Oddly all these women ultimately get what they want but their experiences make them question its worth. Even the one story with the seeming happy ending is not all it seems, for whatever harmony exists now, this tri-partite production shows can only become what the other two houses represent.

Husbands and Sons is the latest in an increasing line of triumphs for the National Theatre offering an innovative take on a well-known author. Lawrence’s world comes to life so starkly in this production you’ll almost want to wipe the coal dust off your face as you leave. As productions go this also could not be timelier and as we are in a period of growing momentum to complete female emancipation this is your chance to see three great actresses playing three admirable women.

Husbands and Sons is at the National Theatre until 19 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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