Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Theatre Review: Angels in America

If the point of a review is to offer a critique of the subject at hand, to criticise it, then I’m not sure that this post qualifies.

I’m don’t know what I’d class it as instead, mind. A rave? Some kind of weird written down orgasm? A love letter to Nathan Lane? It could be any and all of these. It certainly contains the latter.

Whatever it is, the subject matter of this post is Angels in America currently being revived, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, in a huge, all star, sold out production at the National Theatre. And I’m struggling to call this post a real review because there’s nothing I want to criticise; this production is perfect theatre, all seven and a half hours of it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage. I feel just so inordinately lucky to have seen it.

Angels in America is, of course, an absolute classic and the writing remains some of the best you will ever hear. Told across two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Tony Kushner’s epic, in every sense of the word, tale of gay life in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis is both an excoriating critique of conservative, and particularly Reagan-era US, politics as well as a more hopeful message on the inevitability of human progress and improvement.

It’s fantastic to see both plays shown as far as I can tell more or less uncut - certainly there are lengthy passages included here that were cut from probably the best known version of these plays, HBO’s Al Pacino/Meryl Streep starring TV version. Kushner’s writing is incredible throughout and even seemingly tangential passages, such as the Oldest Living Bolshevik scene that opens Perestroika, are a joy to hear. There are passages, too, that are so much more resonant now than they have been at any time since the plays were written. The plays’ concern with the arguments over immigration and its benefits are depressingly relevant again, for example. Most striking, and frightening, though is how much more important the character of Roy Cohn has become again. The real Cohn was a key adviser to one Donald J Trump and listening to the plays’ version speak, even though his words are fictionalised, is a chilling reminder of the attitudes and worldview of the most powerful man in the world.

On the other hand, and perhaps partly in response to this, this production plays up the humour in Kushner’s writing to an unexpected degree. I had no idea how much I was going to laugh over the course of the seven and a half hours nor how much the production was going to be halted by bursts of spontaneous applause for the comedy moments. As much as it was unexpected, though, this was welcome and totally worked in the context of the production; both to increase the impact of and provide some relief from the darkness of other scenes. It was fun to see a knowing wink being paid to some of the casting decisions as well, in particular watching Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn offering his verdict on La Cages Aux Folles.

Angels in America in general, and Perestroika in particular, can be difficult plays to stage because of their overt theatricality and the presence of a very literal Angel in many key scenes. This production doesn’t hide from this for even a moment, in fact quite the opposite. It seizes the theatricality with both hands and has an enormous amount of fun with it. Much of this must surely be down to the influence of director Marianne Elliott of, amongst other things, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time fame. Many of the techniques used in these other NT blockbusters are in evidence in Angels, most notably puppetry and the use of black clad acrobats to maneuver the Angel (human puppetry, I suppose). These are used incredibly effectively again here and are consistent with Kushner’s stage direction that the audience should be able to see how these moments are created without the mechanics getting in the way of our willing suspension of disbelief.

The best examples of this are, unsurprisingly, in the Angel sequences which are jaw dropping in their creativity and visually stunning. The Angel herself is given a worn, almost steampunk, aesthetic which extends to her threadbare wings - two giant puppets - and tattered US flag costume, and reflects both her story of God abandoning Heaven and her shabby message of regression perfectly. As actress Amanda Lawrence is lifted, carried and occasionally almost thrown across the stage by her ‘Shadows’, you never completely forget that there are people underneath and around her but you also never for a moment doubt that this is the Angel, a single character with a personality all of her own. I sat and watched many of these scenes with my mouth gaping open like a fish (attractive). Even after seeing the Angel multiple times the impact never lessened.

Despite the bounty of joy available throughout this production, it’s still the acting that really sells it. This is a long and huge production but there are only eight principal actors all playing multiple roles. Each and every one of them is superb and it says much about the outstanding quality of this cast that the peerless Denise Gough is one of the least memorable - in any other production her defiantly sad Harper would run away with the show, but this is not any other production. A number of the cast truly excel: Russell Tovey’s conflicted and earnest Joe is such a touching and subtle performance, Susan Brown’s dual big roles of Hannah and Ethel Rosenberg are both perfectly pitched, especially in Perestroika where she is barely off stage but utterly masterful nonetheless, and the surprise package of James McArdle who blew me away as Louis, completely unrecognisable from his James Plays/Young Chekhov characters and with an American accent so perfect it’s almost impossible to remember that he is in fact very Scottish.

Then there’s Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. In a production filled with the best acting you can currently see in London he is utterly peerless. It’s not so much that he’s in a different league to everyone else, he’s playing a whole different sport. There were moments in Lane’s performance that were so good that I found myself crying just because I felt so honoured to be watching them, which I realise is such a dickhead stagey thing to say but it’s true. His scenes with Russell Tovey in particular are an utter joy to watch, the confrontation at the end of Millennium Approaches is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen and, literally, made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t really do justice to how good this performance is in words, save to say that it’s three days later and I still can’t comprehend how lucky I am to have seen it.

Which is the perfect place to leave this review, I think, as it could equally apply to the production as a whole. I’ve never had a theatrical experience like Angels in America before. I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, I gaped in wonder for embarrassing amounts of time. This production is unforgettable and perfect and profound. I am privileged to have seen it.

Angels in America is sold out at the NT, but there are limited tickets available on the day and through the Angels Ballot. It’s also getting the NT Live treatment in July. Do what you need to to see it.

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