Playwright Tony Kushner is having a resurgence in London, and there could not be a better time for it.
Last autumn his play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, astounded audiences at the Hampstead Theatre. Now comes a stunning, star-studded production of his seven and a half hour magnum opus Angels in America at the National Theatre.
Dubbed by Kushner “a gay fantasia on national themes” on its release in 1993, the play has become known as one of the seminal cultural texts on the Aids crisis, alongside Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart.
The play impressively weaves in many of the era’s tribulations and debates as President Reagan ignored the crisis and conservatism was in the ascendency. The complexities of religion and family run throughout the piece as the mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and the depression of his wife Harper (Denise Gough).
Meanwhile Louis (James McArdle) and Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), the nurse who assists both the heroic and the villainous, debate politics, religion, racism and the former’s abandonment issues.
Kushner uses angels to symbolise not only death for victims of the disease, but also as a rebuttal of American society as it hurtles toward the end of the millennium. Reaganite rhetoric of the godless “communism” of the USSR is toyed with in the play as the angels come to Earth looking for a prophet who can save the after-life. God has abandoned the angels and now they are simply celestial bureaucrats trying to understand why this has happened.
Prior Walter (a superbly energetic Andrew Garfield) is the young gay scenester the angels think can save them. It is through his relationships with Louis, Belize and Harper that the action moves forward as he is first struck down by Aids and then struggles with the effects of the disease.
That Angels in America makes its return to the stage now is great timing. Donald Trump’s election casts a long shadow over the production, and even the most apolitical of audience members will be unable to miss it. Themes of migration, religion, sexuality, racism and political crises are discussed throughout. In a mirroring of Trump’s rhetoric the play opens with a rabbi lamenting the impossibility of migrants assimilating into US society.
The Aids crisis forced out into the open those who had previously been able to hide their sexuality. Whereas before Aids it might be possible for some wealthy gay men to “pass” as heterosexual, now with the physical effects of the disease it became hard to deny their sexuality.
This included some who had made careers of bashing LGBT people and other minorities. Perhaps no one epitomises this more than Roy Cohn.
Cohn, an attorney, was a real-life New York powerbroker and a mentor of Donald Trump. A key figure in the history of modern US conservatism, he spent most of his life denying his homosexuality while actively working against minorities through his political associations and litigation.
Broadway legend Nathan Lane portrays the closeted and villainous Cohn with great humour and steals the scenes in which he appears. Cohn made a name for himself as anti-communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy’s right hand man, bragging that he was the driving force behind the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the scientists convicted of sharing atomic secrets with Russia. It is Ethel who returns to haunt Cohn as his angel of death.
Director Marianne Elliott cleverly assigns secondary roles to the main cast. We see Gough reappear as one of Cohn’s co-conspirators. Tovey and Lane also hilariously portray two of Prior Walter’s ancestors heralding the angels’ approach.
This production stays faithful to Kushner’s text but is, thankfully, split into two parts. Whereas part one, Millennium Approaches, is snappy and filled with humour, the second part, Perestroika, is sluggish and overburdened by visions of angels.
So much time is spent reminding us why angels are there that it almost loses its symbolism altogether, though the humour still shines through. The script is best when focusing on the human relations put under strain by “the plague”, and the uncertainty of the Cold War, not so much when imagining celestial worlds.
At a time when Trump is ramping up rhetoric and looking for new scapegoats, this production is a timely dose of history. Those who have seen previous productions of the play, or the HBO mini-series, will still enjoy this version brought to life with an excellent cast, all in their prime.
Angels in America is on at the National Theatre in London until 19 August. It will be broadcast to cinemas via NT Live: Part One on 20 July and Part Two on 27 July