History, time and legacy all play a prevalent role in this revival of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. It looks at the right-wing politics that dominated the US in the 1980s and how the marginalised were trying to make sense of, well, everything. The AIDS epidemic stalked its only supposed victims: the junkies and the homosexuals and destroyed everything in its stark, wailing path and The American Dream, not so much celebrated, is torn apart and strewn across the bodies of the liberals that opposed it. Originally staged at the National Theatre in 1993, following workshops in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Angels in America is split into two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. At a daunting seven and a half hours, it may seem a heavy prospect but the sharp, humorous writing and extraordinary performances ensure its audience is permanently gripped.
The plot focuses on various people affected by AIDS – both directly and indirectly. Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) is diagnosed early on and we see his journey documented, as well as the effect the disease has on his relationship with boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle). Nathan Lane’s Roy M Cohn is a very successful and impossibly ruthless lawyer who threatens to destroy his doctor when informed of his diagnosis. Whilst this character interestingly but unsurprisingly (for the time) cannot fathom contracting AIDS (“It is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer”), he is still particularly open about sleeping with men. It is simply the label (which the play touches on repeatedly) that he has trouble with. Joseph Pitt (Russell Tovey) is also a lawyer, a Mormon, and in denial of his sexuality. He is also a Republican – the most utterly ridiculous attribute, we are told repeatedly, this tortured soul has. Despite the politics of Reagan occupying the White House and much of America, the play is set for the most part in a world that hopes for liberation of the marginalised and constantly asks questions. It is a world that most who voted against Brexit and who were shocked by the election of Donald Trump can relate to. Pitt’s wife, Harper (Denise Gough) is addicted to Valium and finds herself dreaming of escapism – mostly from the confines of her fragmented mind. The hallucinations she experiences are common in Angels in America, as is the sheer delirium that sets the tone for the latter part of the play.
Part One is introductory but great at throwing us head first into the reality of the play. It is unapologetic in its graphic, clinical, yet warm approach and finds truth in each of the characters’ struggles. Ian MacNeil’s set is simple and cold but contrasts perfectly with the intense and thought provoking dialogue that spills from it. For the most part, it splits the scenes into individual sections but sometimes, and more so in Part Two, meshes them together as the stories become intertwined. Gradually they begin to appear as cogs in a clock – or a machine until the stage becomes more stripped and baron and ultimately captures the eerie grandeur of an abandoned opera house. There’s very little glitz but when Angels in America wants to strike you down and singe your eyebrows, it doesn’t hold back.
Garfield and Lane are absolute revelations in an extraordinarily strong cast. Garfield’s camp, head flicking Prior goes on a momentous journey and has to deal with tremendous heartache. He is a drama queen – think Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond (who he actually portrays in a sad, yet entertaining scene), equally tormented and at odds, yet always scarily confident of who he is. It is his lovable but self centred – and grossly pedantic – boyfriend that we feel more overwhelmed by. Garfield captures his character perfectly, taking his family’s history and namesakes into account, as well as the legacy of what it means to be homosexual, on his shoulders. He is extremely likeable and sympathetic, calling out attention seekers and those who merely enjoy the idea of emotion, rather than actually feeling it. Lane’s Cohn is a nasty piece of work but the book and the actor’s performance gives him a thoroughly deep feel. He jokes, “hire a lawyer, sue someone, it’s good for the soul”, whilst dying in a way his ego could never have imagined. This lends Cohn an irony you simply cannot dislike and you can’t help but admire his ridiculous drive to always win. One of the most versatile actors here is Amanda Lawrence who tackles several characters with incredible skill and emotion. She too is a standout.
Angels in America is metaphorical; it is an epic, biblical fable that shows our questions are never fully answered even if we believe in and enter the after-life. The merging of reality and the surreal work wonderfully and illustrates the piece’s highly satirical tone but there are moments, particularly in Part Two where the story and the action feels bizarre, disjointed and lost. Overall, however the piece is extremely strong and completely epic. It promotes a discussion on politics, existentialism, sexuality, identity and mental health. But most crucially it will always be relevant.
Angels in America is playing at the National Theatre until August 2017.
Photo: Helen Maybanks