After the events of this weekend, on the evening I saw this show, I was in two-minds about writing about this beautiful play, for fear of feeling a bit tone deaf. However, if the stunning One Love Manchester concert that took place last night tells us anything, it’s that in the hardest and darkest of times, the arts can offer a real comfort. And Angels in America was certainly an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
Tony Kushner’s mammoth play was originally performed in two halves, as Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and the National gives you the option to watch one of the two halves on different evenings, or to spend an entire day in the wordy world of 1980s New York that Kushner creates.
The play follows a mix of characters, all touched by the AIDS crisis. Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) finds himself apparently dying from AIDS, and facing abandonment from his partner Louis Ironson (James McArdle). Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) is a Mormon Republican, a protogee of ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), with a desperately unhappy wife at home (Denise Gough), and he might also be gay.
The human dramas of broken hearts, is played out against a fantastical drama which also features musings on the political themes of the time. Prior begins to be visited by an angel, and in the second part of the play travels to heaven, when he is burdened with a prophecy he doesn’t really want. Visits to angels, sit along Harper Pitt’s pill-induced fantasies, which may or may not be actually happening. If you need your theatre to be grounded solely in reality, this is probably not for you; but Marianne Elliot’s direction and Ian MacNeil’s design just helps keep you being swept up in the story.
Obviously in a play as long as this one, there needs to be performances and characters that you are really invested in. This is a true ensemble cast, with all of the characters also doubling as minor roles in certain scenes. You cannot help but sympathise with Andrew Garfield’s Prior, who is hilariously flamboyant, but also has moments of incredible poignancy (his final lines made me cry). The best surprise for me was Russell Tovey as Joe Pitt, a man torn between the many things he thinks he wants, he was both deeply dislikeable and yet somehow I found myself rooting for him too. His work as Prior 1 in one of the more fantastical scenes is also excellent. Louis was possibly my least favourite character, but James McArdle captures his combination of cowardice and desperation to hide behind intellect really well and the moment he tries to tell Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Belize that race is no longer a problem in America is quite brilliant. Indeed, all of Kushner’s characters just feel incredibly human, and he is great at undercutting your expectations of characters. Denise Gough’s Harper seems completely unhinged, but her anxious worrying about the ozone layer and the future of the planet betrays a wasted intelligence. Susan Brown’s Hannah Pitt initially seems like the Mormon mother from hell, but reveals herself to be much deeper than that.
Angels in America is a play that is concerned with moving forward, with the future. Character’s can’t decide whether to be brave an explore the unknown, the unplanned; or whether to hide behind what they do know, and what is understandable. They crave the ‘before’, before AIDS, before things got difficult, before heartbreak, but ultimately realise that we must keep moving forward.
In times such as these, where people seem determined to turn the clock back to a period where we judge people on a specific characteristic that they have, a choose to marginalise them; this play’s messages feel even more important. It is also a really important play to see to reflect on a moment in history where hundreds of people died, and their deaths were dismissed or seen as a reflection of their morality, and to remind us to never let that happen again.