‘Real love is never ambivalent’: Angels in America @ National Theatre

Perhaps it’s my youthful energy, but I absolutely loved this. Eight hours standing in the dark to watch some of my favourite actors perform a classic of American theatre? Sign me right up. At only £10 (the price of a standing ticket to both parts, bought on the day), this was surely a steal.

IMG_2539photo credit: Helen Maybanks

I know that some people have, not unreasonably, pointed out flaws. And sure, the show finishes after many a last train home has departed. However, nothing could spoil what a great time I had. The all-round excellent performances, the operatic staging, the experience of having such an epic text wash over me for the first time – all of this contributed to a really good night, I mean day, at the theatre.

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Angels in America is Tony Kushner’s great Aids play and the behemoth of that genre. Spanning eight hours and incorporating many large and small roles (managed with surprisingly few actors in this production – quality over quantity, it seems), it tells the tale of Prior Walter, a young gay man in New York City who is dying of Aids. After his lover Louis leaves him, unable to deal with the illness, Prior is visited by a strange Angel who imparts a prophecy to him about how human beings are bringing about the fall of heaven. Other storylines include that of a Joe Pitt (a convincing Russell Tovey), a Mormon clerk who won’t come to terms with his homosexuality and has a difficult relationship with his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (a strong Denise Gough). Joe, who is a Republican, knows and looks up to Roy Cohn, a corrupt big-time lawyer who is outwardly homophobic but has many relations with men. Roy contracts Aids but insists the doctors call it liver cancer. Belize, the black gay nurse who cares for Roy in hospital, is a good friend and former lover of Prior’s. On and on, the many characters’ stories weave around each other to create a large-scale drama.

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This production is so important because it works against how much Aids has faded from the public consciousness. The horror of what happened to the homosexual community during the 80s is brought home to those watching. Prior is utterly lost, watching his friends die around him without explanation. Angels shows a collection of fascinating people trying to find answers to their lives in this environment.

The show is mainly about the Aids crisis, but comments quite a lot on American politics, too. The characters represent many different political viewpoints – left-wing Louis, portrayed very well by James McArdle, can’t stop plaintively and eandearingly spouting his politics, while Joe glibly insists that Democrats and Republicans really want the same thing. The over-all atmosphere however is much more negative, telling of horrible things to come for America. It is sad that Kushner’s apocalyptic predictions no longer seem over-the-top – the many rueful laughs which the political comments illicit from the audience undoubtedly had everything to do with the current American president. It’s not surprising that Roy Cohn was Trump’s political advisor for ten years.

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The stand-out performance for me is Andrew Garfield’s. Boy, what stamina that boy must have. His energetic, sweet and compelling performance, which he sustains over both multiple-hour parts of Angels, really surprised me. I guess I never know what to expect when I see actors I only know from the screen onstage for the first time. For me, Garfield makes the best kind of transition.

Another highlight was seeing Nathan Lane onstage. Surely everyone who has seen his screen work, from The Producers to Modern Family, must love him, and he was just as wonderful as I expected. His ability to remain consistenly funny yet horrible as Roy Cohn is astounding and I found him a joy to watch.

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The set changes are managed by a team of dark-clad actors who lope and crawl around the stage with fluid, animalistic movements as they push and pull doors, beds and walls, ever hiding in the shadows. They are also puppeteers, responsible for the complex choreography of the Angel’s wings. These wings are not attached to the Angel but instead are giant bendable apparatuses that seem to float alongside her. I always find a childlike joy in seeing the workings of theatre onstage, so I greatly enjoyed all this.

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What you would not expect about this seemingly heavy social-political drama about gay rights, black rights, women’s rights..is that it’s actually hilarious, a lot of the time. It also has a wonderful dream-like quality – the narrative is playfully free, many scenes are hallucinatory. I feel like this show has to be experienced. Especially if you have never seen Angels in America, this theatrical extravaganza should not be missed. Everything from the development of relationships and individual characters’ breakdowns to the flashing lights and colours of the ever-changing set is extremely watchable.  The National does this kind of thing very well – taking a classic and giving it the size, star casting and big-budget design it deserves.

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Angels in America is playing the National Theatre in two parts until 19 August 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

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