Review: Angels in America, National Theatre

“It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet”

In the many aspects of Angels in America that there are to enjoy and appreciate, the richness of Tony Kushner’s writing was not one that I was particularly expecting. But at several points throughout the many, many hours of the two-show press day, it felt like Kushner was almost writing in pull-quotes, such was the vividness of the language that was resonating from the stage of the Lyttelton. So to reflect that, I’m structuring this post a little differently to a traditional review, using some of those quotes to trigger and collect some of my thoughts. 


“The great work begins”

Such was the ‘noise’ around this 25th anniversary production of these shows that it was impossible to ignore the fevered level of expectation and that’s something I find a little hard to deal with. I’d never seen them onstage before, nor succumbed to the temptation of watching the HBO miniseries, wanting to be able to make up my own mind about them. But it is so difficult in this day and age, to dissociate from the chatter around the theatre I love. Plus the fact that so many exciting names were attached to the cast and creative listings – Marianne Elliott directing the likes of Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield, Olivier winner Denise Gough, bona fide cultural institution Nathan Lane…I mean who couldn’t get just a bit excited.

“This is the very threshold of revelation”

We clearly live in a different world as far as AIDS is concerned, both in terms of its treatment and the stigma attached to it, albeit with much work still to be done, but it is remarkable how much of Angels in America is so insightfully pertinent. Whether intolerance of race or sexuality, the intersection of religious values and personal identity, lofty national ideals against uncompromising self-interest, the play remains imaginatively but indelibly important.

“History is about to crack wide open”

Marianne Elliot’s previous credits loom large in many different aspects of her production here, but none more so than in the spectacular way in which Amanda Lawrence’s Angel crash-lands into the final moments of Millennium Approaches. Combining elements of War Horse (Finn Caldwell on duty again) with a sprinkling of The Light Princess (levity!), it’s a properly awesome moment of theatre which also brings a touch of the cliff-hanger ending which you rarely get to experience in plays. Historically speaking, I also loved Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey’s work as Prior 2 and Prior 1.

“Bless me anyway. I want more life”

Andrew Garfield is outstanding as Prior Walter, powerfully convincing as a proudly queer man, the contrast between the increasing frailty of his body and the growing fierceness of his spirit is really something to behold. All that rage and fear so deeply felt, Garfield makes him vulnerable but never a victim, especially as he tries to untangle his relationship with James McArdle’s Louis. Also giving literal life is Denise Gough’s Harper, whose pill-popping, hallucinatory ways are agonisingly well-portrayed.

“This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother”

One of several roles covered by Susan Brown, who may be one of the more unsung names of the acting ensemble, but who deserves much love for the scope of her multi-roling, the sheer conviction she brings to such diverse characters, whilst anchoring much of Perestroika in real heart as Hannah Pitt, whose revelatory journey is as profound as anyone’s. 

“Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag”

I love how Kushner managed to work in a side-eyed future reference to the new series of Rupaul’s Drag Race – a timely revival indeed…

“You cry, but you endanger nothing in yourself. It’s like the idea of crying when you do it. Or the idea of love”

Given how Holding The Man utterly pole-axed me and the warnings I’d been given in advance of this, I was a little surprised that I didn’t progress beyond the artful single tear down the cheek. The tear reappeared on a number of occasion but I wasn’t in any danger of sobbing at any point (not that that is a particular mark of quality, just more what I was expecting from the shows).

“When your heart breaks, you should die. But there’s still the rest of you”

I’ve not had time to mention Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s deeply compassionate performance as nurse Belize, Russell Tovey’s tightly buttoned gay Mormon coming to terms with his desire, the way in which Ian McNeil’s design plays with the gargantuan space of the auditorium, the neon dashes of Paule Constable’s lighting… There’s huge amounts to enjoy here in this huge amount of theatre, whether you go for the mammoth feat of the two-show day or split them over separate night.

Check out photo galleries of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika

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