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.