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Review of Angels in America – National Theatre

Weeks 1-4: 20 minute runs on alternate days with rest in between. Stretching exercises
Weeks 5-8: 30 minute runs on alternate days with rest in between. More stretching
Weeks 9-12: 40 minute runs on alternate days with rest in between. Massage once a week
Weeks 13-16: 50 minute runs every day – no rest. Massages on alternate days

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Mr Lies) and Denise Gough (Harper Pitt) in Angels in America - Millennium Approaches
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Mr Lies) and Denise Gough (Harper Pitt) in Angels in America – Millennium Approaches (c) Helen Maybanks

You may think that’s the exercise regime needed to run a marathon and that’s exactly what it is but, in this instance, it’s a regime to prepare yourself for the theatrical marathon that is Tony Kushner’s magnus opus Angels In America. It’s split over two separate plays Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika. My day at the Lyttleton started at 1:00pm and ended at 11:10pm with four intervals and a break of just over two hours in between the two plays. But don’t let this put you off as this is one of the most amazing pieces of theatre you will ever get to see. And if you’re not prepared to go into training for it, you can, of course, see them on separate days.

There are so many issues addressed by Kushner in his award-winning play, that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with them. There’s the main theme of how AIDS developed in the mid 80’s and how it decimated the gay community in New York. But it also touches on immigration, right-wing politics, mental illness, and the Palestinian situation amongst others. Oh, and he mocks the Mormon religion eighteen years before they did it in Book Of Mormon!

This revival couldn’t have a come at a better time with the action taking place during President Regan’s second term and his right-wing policies are analogous with those of Donald Trumps. Because of this, the themes and the dialogue resonate a lot more than if it been revived during the Obama years – timing, in this case is everything.

The first play starts with Susan Brown as Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz (one of several male parts she plays) overseeing the funeral of a woman he never knew and then it bursts into life with the arrival of the foul-mouthed, obnoxious, real life lawyer Roy M Cohn played superbly by Nathan Lane making his first appearance on a London stage since he played Max Bialystok in The Producers in 2004. In another connection to today’s politics, Cohn was Trump’s legal advisor in the 80’s and it’s said that Cohn was a mentor to the young property tycoon. It’s testimony to Lane’s performance that although we should hate Cohn, by the end where he’s dying from AIDS (which along with his homosexuality, he always denied), we feel some sympathy for him.

James McArdle (Louis) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in AngelsInAmerica Perestroika
James McArdle (Louis) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in AngelsInAmerica Perestroika photo by Helen Maybanks

As the play unfolds we get to meet the other characters. Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter is a gay, drag queen who contracts AIDS and guides us through the rest of the play. He gets to meet two of his ancestors (also called Prior Walter), a Yorkshire farmer and a Regency fop, dreams about an angel coming to earth, gets to ascend to heaven to meet even more angels and almost dies from AIDS. At the start of the play, he’s living with Louis Ironson (James McArdle), a Jewish clerk who when he realises how ill Prior is, takes the cowards way out and leaves him. Later he hooks up with Joseph Pitt (Russell Tovey), a closeted, gay Mormon who is in an unhappy marriage with his pill-popping, delusional wife Harper (Denise Gough). The two other main characters who appear in the two plays are Belize (Nathan Stewart-Garratt) who’s a nurse and an old friend of Priors and Hannah Pitt (Susan Brown) Joseph’s mother who at first seems a peripheral character but as the play progresses, becomes central to the action.

The performances are all exceptional. Lane’s Roy Cohn goes from smarmy bonhomie to incandescent rage in the blink of an eye and from funny to scary in a nanosecond. Garfield’s Prior Walter is the heart of the piece with his character driving the narrative going from the head tossing, fey drag queen to wrestling with an angel and aggressively prowling the stage in a long black cloak and hood. The other stand-out is Susan Brown who plays not only Hannah Pitt, but the aforementioned Rabbi Chemelwitz, Henry (Roy Cohn’s doctor,) Ethel Rosenberg (a ghost who only Cohn sees), the wonderfully named Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (the oldest living Bolshevik), and an angel!

Marianne Elliott’s direction is a triumph ably aided by a large technical team who are so important to this massive production, that they were brought on at the end to take their bows.

 Although the plays are two parts of a whole, they differ somewhat in tone. Millennium Approaches is big and cinematic with a lot of music as the soundtrack to the action and in between scenes. Under a metallic canopy that has echoes of HR Giger’s spaceship in Alien, Ian McNeil’s set moves with a wondrous fluidity with rooms surrounded by neon lights, sliding in and out of the action with smooth simplicity and props appearing as if by magic. Perestroika is much simpler and whilst Millennium Approaches needs the vastness of the Lyttleton stage, a lot of Perestroika could have been performed on the much smaller Dorfman. It’s played mainly on a stripped back and almost empty stage with what props there are brought on by the slinky, ground-hugging and almost invisible dancers who play the Angel Shadows who lift The Angel (Amanda Lawrence) into the air and operate her wings.

Angels in America is a vast sprawling piece of theatre encompassing many issues and concepts across it’s almost eight hours. Millennium Approaches is a tighter more engaging and funnier piece with Perestroika denser with longer, more intense speeches and less set-dressing. Kushner is trying to make a lot of points and at times it seems there are too many – at times I felt I was suffering from information overload!

Over the course of the day and into the evening, we get the real, the imaginary, the mystical and the magical. We get snow, rain, flying angels, illusions, fire, trips to heaven, Russia, Antarctica, and Salt Lake City, puppets and a whole lot more.

When I left the theatre, over ten hours after I first entered it, I felt as the audience should have been given one of those metallic thermal blankets that runners are given after a marathon and possibly even a medal! It certainly had been a theatrical marathon but one that will linger for a long time in the memory. Angels In America is without doubt a modern masterpiece – at times it’s laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, allegorical, metaphorical and thought provoking. It was a long and mentally tiring day but totally worth the effort – even if I did need a bit more training and preparation!

4.5* (5* for part 1 and 4* for part 2)

4 and a Half stars

Review by Alan Fitter

Angels in America
America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell.

The cast includes Andrew Garfield playing Prior Walter, Denise Gough playing Harper Pitt, Nathan Lane playing Roy Cohn, James McArdle playing Louis Ironson and Russell Tovey playing Joe Pitt.

This new staging of Tony Kushner’s multi-award-winning two-part play is directed by Olivier and Tony award-winning director Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and War Horse). Part One: Millennium Approaches was first performed at the National Theatre in 1992 and was followed by Part Two: Perestroika the next year.

Please note: this production contains strobe lighting
#AngelsInAmerica

Angels in America will also be broadcast to cinemas by NT Live from 20 July. Find out more.

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