Lucy Milburn dives deep into the explosive and sensational rebirth of Tony Kushner’s revolutionary play as NT Live broadcast both parts of the theatrical event on the year.
The National Theatre’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s milestone in American theatre has been met with ferocious praise throughout its run and NT Live’s hotly anticipated broadcast to over 60 countries was no different. The performance had the uncertainty and thrilling atmosphere that accompanies a live show without the West End price tag. Angels in America may be the story of AIDS in 1980’s New York but the play’s grand statements on American politics, the uncertainty of love and sexual denial are enduringly relevant. The two parts span a daunting eight hours in total but they grip you to the very end, thanks to both stellar spectacle and a star-studded cast.
ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES
Part One: Millennium Approaches follows Kushner’s narrative closely as we are introduced to two couples buckling under the strain of contemporary America. Mormons Joe (Russell Tovey) and Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) are trapped, deep inside the closet or their own heads, while Louis (James McArdle) and Prior (Andrew Garfield) endure the dilapidating and unglamourous strain of AIDS on their relationship. We meet lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), obsessed with clout and vehemently in denial of his own mortality, and the endearing Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who suffers from the brunt of American prejudice as a black, queer nurse.
With ominous lighting and unexpected blackouts, Millennium Approaches delivers on its apocalyptic vision of America in the future. It is impossible to ignore the chilling relationship between the comically evil Roy Cohn and our post-millennium Trump. The real-life Cohn was the current president’s legal advisor which is interesting to consider as you watch Nathan Lane’s abrasive character turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. Andrew Garfield excels as the beating heart of Angels in America – the open and anguished Prior Walter. He displays both vulnerability and immense pride in his sexuality as his illness manifests in weird and wonderful ways. Although the play’s discussion of AIDS, death and mortality is painfully frank, it also delivers light humour in the face of tragedy.
ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA
Part Two of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play is wildly inventive, erotic and, simply put, sensational. Millennium Approaches had its roots in human error and mortal issues while Perestroika works on a more fantastical, allegorical level. The second part of Kushner’s epic is bigger – in both production and narrative. Our prophet Prior is tasked with the incomprehensible duty of halting the progress of humanity and the boundaries between reality and the world of dreams, hallucinations and angels rapidly close in.
Director Marianne Elliott was recently behind the visually impressive War Horse and a highlight of the second performance was her spectacular interpretation of the Angel. Kushner made clear in his preface to the play that theatrical illusion is never seamless and he actively encouraged “letting the wires show.” Amanda Lawrence’s Angel is a scrawny, frail creature with hair on-end and sprawling, dislocated wings that move around and are reassembled by spectral shadows in a beautifully choreographed display. Elliott is so confident in her vision that the daring theatrics work. There is no angelic grace when the Angel wrestles with Prior and her horrendous splutters are more nightmarish than heavenly.
Perestroika also builds on the spectacle of the previous chapter by using the vast set to its full potential. Full scenes in the hospital, complete with a dying, bedridden Roy Cohn, burst from the floor at the foreground whilst Prior literally ascends a garish, neon ladder up to heaven. Although the entire cast continue to deliver, supporting actors Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Susan Brown are standouts in this second half as Belize and Hannah Pitt.
The NT production of Angels in America is a marathon of contemporary theatre – exhausting and emotionally draining – but when the actors finally take their bow, you are left with an uplifting sense of awe at the human spirit and our ability to progress.
Angels in America finishes its run at the National Theatre this Saturday (19th August) and encore broadcasts of both plays are continuing at cinemas across the country.
(Image courtesy of the National Theatre)