Tag Archives: National Theatre

Network – National Theatre

Network, National Theatre (by Jan Versweyveld)

Film techniques are increasingly becoming part of the language used by modern theatre-makers to tell their stories, and your view of that will largely depend on how traditional you like your theatre. A year ago, Robert Icke staged a slick and movie-like interpretation of George Simenon’s novel The Red Barn at the National Theatre, swiftly followed by a vibrant Hamlet with newsreels and close-ups at The Almeida. Where once the two arts would exchange little more than personnel, now cinematic styles, approaches, and particularly the technology of film is one of the ways directors are choosing to engage audiences and reimagine well known plays.

Ivo van Hove has been attempting to shake-up British theatre for some years, presenting stark and emotionally-charged versions of the classics including A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler. Earlier this year, his production of Obsession with Jude Law at the Barbican introduced more radical techniques including large screens with projected imagery that proved to be love-it or loath-it marmite for the established critical press. His latest venture at the National will surely be the same, bringing theatre and film closer together by staging Network, based on the 1976 Paddy Chayesfsky film of the same name.

With van Hove’s work in general, I’m firmly in the love-it camp, and while the stories themselves don’t always stand up to scrutiny as Obsession proved, his innovative interpretations feel like a breath of fresh air – just watching his creations unfold in unexpected and inventive ways makes for a fascinating and engaging night at the theatre. And Network is equally enthralling, interpreting a rather strange story in a slick, fast-moving production that manages to reveal the media’s rather shallow relationship with truth and makes profound statements about the concept of collective action, all the while being true to its original movie roots.

Newscaster Howard Beale is being pushed into retirement by the network who want a younger face on screen, so a week before his final broadcast the disparaged Beale reveals he will shoot himself live on air. Initially outraged by this PR disaster, his bosses try to pull him off the air immediately, but that’s until ambitious new TV executive Diana Christensen senses an opportunity to produce a different kind of news show. With Beale back on the air with a no holds barred show, the network discovers giving the people what they want may help the ratings, but with truth and integrity at stake, the cost may be more than they bargained for.

Van Hove directs with a deliberate sense of controlled chaos with scenes running seamlessly into one another, conveying the frantic sense of a busy newsroom and the fast-paced lives of those within it. But van Hove also knows when to insert moments of stillness, reflection and consideration, slowing-down scenes to give Howard the opportunity to connect directly with the audience in his political monologues or in moments of enlightenment when he discusses the nature of the world with the Chairman of his network.

Drawing directly from the film and mirroring the work of companies such as Complicité, van Hove merges traditional UK and European styles of theatre, an increasingly presence in his work over the past few years. The stage is dominated by a multi-purpose giant screen centre-stage that becomes integral to the action as both a representation of the TV screen that Howard appears on, frequently showing adverts in the background of the action, and as a place to project individual close-up scenes filmed by roving cameras to capture intense interactions taking place at the back of the vast Lyttleton stage cutting between the two actors in the style of the film.

And it works very effectively, giving a sense of the intimacy that cinema creates while establishing a story set in a changing age of newscasting, where entertainment began to trump merely purveying the truth. For the second time this season, new shows are asking audiences to think about a turning point in media history and how it has subsequently shaped the way information is now conveyed to us. And, just as Ink demonstrated how pandering to popular expectation created an insatiable demand for increasingly outrageous content, Network also shows how a chance decision unleashes a Frankenstein’s monster which the company rapidly loses control of.

Network may be big, brash and spectacular to look at, but there are also strong messages about the role of journalists in presenting the news, encouraging the audience to consider where the line between entertainment and information should exist. ‘Television is not real’, is a constant refrain with calls from the increasingly troubled Howard for his viewers to turn off their sets and take collective positive action to make the world better. And this couldn’t feel more timely, asking whether we should just be passive receptors of news or participate in mass protest to take on the big power of governments and multinational corporations – “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” becoming the rallying call for change.

Bryan Cranston gives a layered and controlled central performance as Howard, managing the complex changes in pitch and purpose that affect the character as the story unfolds. Cranston is convincing throughout, first bringing a gravitas and confidence to Howard’s position as a well-respected anchor man before introducing a touch of betrayal, being pushed out after years of working for the network. The ensuing drama resulting from his threat to commit suicide on air is well managed by Cranston who builds a believable sense of mania and collapse that eventually reaches a plateau of calm certainty. Frequently accused of making a fool of himself by colleagues in the industry, Cranston’s Howard is always sure of what he’s saying, and, importantly, shows how the mythical audience would be captivated by his prophet-like charisma.

In a strong supporting role, Michelle Dockery returns to the stage as ambitious TV executive Diana who sees an opportunity to exploit Howard’s mental state to manipulate the ratings and turn his ailing news show into a different kind of hit. As calmly composed as she is emotionally ruthless, Dockery gives Diana a sense of certainty about herself, convinced her view is the right one with an enthusiasm for it that brings others round to her way of thinking. We note that Diana’s personal life is conducted with the efficiency she brings to television producing, and, while she is entirely driven by work, the coldness of her business-like approach starts to become quite merciless as the show concludes.

There are strong supporting performances for Tunji Kasim as network man Frank Hackett, snapping at the heels of the older generation with his plan to reorganise the entire company, bringing the news division under the control of regular programming. Like Diana, Hackett works to consolidate his power throughout the show, but Kasim gives him an edge of uncertainty, fearful of using Howard’s instability in case it rebounds on his precious network.

Douglas Henshall brings depth to the pivotal role of Max Schumacher, head of news and Howard’s best friend, who also faces potential redundancy along with his anchor man and feels overwhelmed by the ambition of his younger colleagues. As his personal life implodes, Henshall’s Max tries to stand by his old friend but is swallowed-up by the monster they unleash, a reminder of normalcy amidst it all. Ian Drysdale as the Director of the network is calm and unruffled as the figurehead sitting above the trivialities below him. Given an almost God-like appearance, Drysdale serenely delivers one of the most chilling speeches about the fiction of nationality, and how multinational corporations really control the mind.

Running for two hours without an interval, van Hove’s direction ensures scenes follow swiftly, utilising the full stage while using engaging technological interventions to add to the audience’s view of events, and reinforce Network’s origins. With events moving so quickly and no prior knowledge of the structure of American television, it’s not always possible to grasp the relationship between the various layers of management or the technical discussions of ratings and market share, but you do get the gist. There are also a couple of places where Howard’s character seems to inexplicably transform between scenes – at one point a virtual wreck wandering into the studio in his dressing gown and ranting, but when we next see him he’s back in an expensive suit speaking almost rationally – and those slight leaps aren’t fully clarified, but don’t really detract from an engaging evening.

van Hove’s productions are always fascinating with a vision that feels refreshing and challenging, again bringing intimacy to the vast Lyttleton stage, which in Jan Versweyveld’s striking set design houses a control booth, the dressing room, a large news studio and a restaurant filled with audience members (an addition that adds little to the production however). Utilising Tal Yarden’s video, and with portable cameras that even allow Dockery and Henshall to film a scene live out on the Southbank and walk back into the National and straight onto the stage, Network merges the production’s film roots with the live reaction shots of broadcast news to create a show that asks the audience to think about the boundary between reality and television, and how collective action might finally make the political changes we want to see.

Network is at the National Theatre until 24 March and is sold-out but tickets are available as part of the £20 Friday Rush scheme at 1pm each week. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    

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Oslo – National Theatre

Toby Stephens in Oslo, National Theatre by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

When we look back at the last 100 years of world history, all you really see is battlefields and bombs. From the first total mechanised war to the modern day, our history seems to be the invention of new forms of death, of fear and an increasing inability to know who the villains really are. But behind all of the things that you think have shaped the world we know, there is one startling fact, that change didn’t really happen in any of these places of death. It germinates there, it is the trigger, but change and the tide of history that accompanies it, really happened in a succession of secret rooms, among a select group of privileged men (mostly men) sitting round a board table with the fate of their countries in their hands.

There is the Versailles Treaty of course at the end of the First World War, an ineffectual conclusion that only paused European hostilities; There was the Wannsee conference, dramatised so well by the BBC in 2001, which brought together the various German war leaders and administrators to chillingly agree the Final Solution; There was the Potsdam meeting with Stalin, Attlee and Truman at the end of World War Two, and in 1993 there was Oslo, the secret negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government that offered the first real possibility in 50 years of peace between the Palestinian and Israeli governments.

For lovers of political theatre, the autumn season has plenty to offer with the West End transfer of Ink opening next week, James Graham’s other new play Labour of Love opening for previews before the end of September, despite a rapid recasting, and this hotly anticipated production of J.T. Rogers’s Tony-award winning Oslo arriving from Broadway with a fresh cast for a brief showing at the National Theatre before it takes up residency at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the rest of the year.

The new season has definitely begun, and the National Theatre is bringing out its big hitters, with the incredible Follies opening to a slew of 5-star reviews and Ivo van Hove directing The Network with Bryan Cranston in November, Oslo is the latest of its big sell-out shows this autumn. Even with Press Night some days away, it’s already clear why America loved Rogers’s play, a fascinating insight into a secret negotiation process that started as a forum for economic cooperation but became the main channel for peace, unexpectedly put together by a Norwegian academic and his wife in the Foreign Ministry.

It’s 1993 and Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen develop a plan to aid the Middle East peace process that is floundering in Washington. With the wrong people at the table, too much distance between the principle players and officious American control, Mona and Terje secretly bring together representatives from the PLO with a couple of economics professors from Israel for unmonitored face-to-face discussions. Terje’s charm and Mona’s Foreign Ministry connections ensure progress is rapid, forcing both sides to see each other as people, putting their enmity aside for the chance to achieve something historic. But as more senior Israeli ministers engage in the process, the demands increase with both peace and secrecy coming under threat.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, Oslo has made a very easy transition to the expansive Lyttleton stage, giving a sense of the smallness of the people around a tiny table in a grand room making huge decisions. There may be greater intimacy when it transfers to the Harold Pinter, but there is something about the scale of what Juul and Rod-Larsen were attempting that fits this space so well. Sher ensures that the roundness of the characters, their foibles and frustrations, as well as their political views are not lost in the space, and the audience sees a surprisingly human story of a big political moment.

Political theatre is never easy to pitch, but Rogers has this just about right with narration throughout from Mona who talks to the audience, explains some of the events happening in the region as well as introducing the key players. Her guidance offers just enough context to those who know nothing about the conflict, supported by projected maps, photographs from the war zone, video footage and some ornamental designs to give a sense of venues changing from the negotiating room, to the Larsen’s flat, to a restaurant. The rapidity of this helps Sher create a sense of pace that bleeds scenes together and makes the 3-hour run time pass unnoticed.

Although this is a play about a major political event, it feels like a character piece and its strength lies in defining the unlikely collection of people it brings together. It was, we are told, Terje’s idea to create a sense of bonhomie where outside the negotiating room the men would talk only of families, drinks and food. And it is in these moments that the audience gets to know them as well, and as the need for narration fades, the humour, warmth and genuine desire to achieve a lasting settlement in each man becomes clearer. People who were once sworn enemies, finding a way forward becomes the play’s dramatic drive.

The question that hangs over it all, and remains delightfully unanswered, is why Mona and, particularly Terje, did this at all. We know that the idea for Oslo came when Rogers met Terje and became fascinated by his, now forgotten, role in this peace process, but Rogers leaves his motivation open to interpretation. Toby Stephens plays this ambiguity perfectly, channelling the mix of ego and desperation that seem to explain Terje’s investment in the business of other countries. Still boyishly handsome, Stephens utilises all the gentlemanly charm that Terje needs to keep everyone onside, smoothing every ripple as the ultimate genial host. But there is a darker undertone to Stephens’s performance, suggesting Terje ultimately wants to be known as the architect of peace in the Middle East which results in occasional outbursts of temper, as well as fear that his military guests might turn on him.

Less overtly ambitious is Lydia Leonard as Terje’s diplomat wife Mona who, unlike her husband, has an official role in the foreign policy of her country. Having previously played Anne Boleyn onstage in the RSC’s version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Leonard has plenty of experience of holding her own on a stage full of men and Oslo is no exception. A softer presence than her husband, Mona is a level-headed force throughout, tactfully navigating the explosive characters in the boardroom and thinking fast to solve unexpected problems. But she’s also carefully balancing a need to protect her career, and Leonard ensures we see that Mona is more than a competent administrator, but someone who’s also risking everything in the affairs of others.

With a large cast surrounding them, it would be easy for the key figures to blend into one another, but Rogers play deliberately gives real insight into the men around the table, and what begins as a series of shouting matches about various contractual sticking points, slowly evolves into growing friendship and believable camaraderie. Leading the Palestinian contingent is the excellent Peter Polycarpou as Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie desperate to establish the legitimacy of the PLO and make the territorial gains he needs. But, he is also full of a humour, enjoying Norwegian hospitality and finding unexpected commonalities with his enemies to which Polycarpou gives warmth and feeling, both charting shifts in Qurie’s opinions while demonstrating the appeal of his own character for others.

Philip Arditti as Israel’s Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, arrives half-way through the negotiations as the first senior figure to get involved. Initially he’s a pretty cool customer, unwilling to make concessions, but like Qurie, develops a genuine investment in the people and the outcome of the talks. Paul Herzberg and Thomas Arnold do well as the vital Israeli Professors unceremoniously cast aside by their military superiors and resenting their usurpation, while Nabil Elouahabi as Palestinian communist Hassan Asfour and Israeli lawyer Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan) add considerable texture when ideals meet cold hard process, turning their dreams of peace into practical reality.

At the end of Oslo as the characters explain to the audience what happened next, both politically and personally, and you’re left in no doubt that however long peace lasts, it is the decisions made in rooms by small groups of people that explain how history happens. So often, these hinge on the mixture of personalities brought together unexpectedly with a common will to enforce change. But, Rogers wants us to know that these processes are also fragile, that they depend on individuals to keep them on track, and once those people move aside, everything they’ve gained is once again up for grabs. Ultimately though even if the players change, the game remains the same and whether its terms of surrender or the cessation of war, decisions aren’t made on the battlefield but in the boardroom.

Oslo is at the National Theatre until 23 September and transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October – 30 December, tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.

Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,

In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.

For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.

Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.

Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.

At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.

Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.

In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.

Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.

Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.

In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham.  His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.

A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.

Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.

Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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.


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