This is theatre at its very finest: it is funny, heartbreaking, captivating, intelligent, beautiful. It is possibly (probably) the finest theatrical production I’ve ever seen.
It demonstrates the potential of art to transform, transport. We are taken to New York apartments, Central Park, Salt Lake City, Antarctica. Hallucinations defy geography, ghosts revive the past, angels descend from heaven, all in ways that would seem contrived anywhere but on a stage.
Kushner’s play is an incredible achievement, even 25 years on. It won two Tonys for Best Play, two Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play, and the 1993 Pulitzer for Drama. It is undoubtedly one of the most important plays from the end of the 20th century – and this revival is one of the most important of the 21st thus far.
'In this world, there's a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead.' #AngelsinAmerica pic.twitter.com/xPyv6qkpfK— National Theatre (@NationalTheatre) August 3, 2017
There are two parts: “Millennium Approaches,” is set in 1985-86, with the world anxiously anticipating the new millennium, and “Perestroika,” named after the period of reformation within the Soviet Communist Party under Gorbachev during the 1980s. At over 7.5 hours in total, with four intervals, it is more marathon than sprint, miniseries than movie. And every minute is vital, I wouldn’t want a moment cut.
The themes are grand in scope and the plot difficult to summarise: from Abrahamic theology to Communist theory; there are Mormons, former drag queens, legal aides, angels.
The cast of characters remains mostly consistent across both plays. Several dozen parts are brought to life by a cast of just seven actors, each of whom delivers a phenomenal performance. Andrew Garfield, whose main role is Prior Walter, arguably the protagonist of the work, gives a heartbreaking performance in the first part and a more confident, comical one in the second. Prior is diagnosed with AIDS early on then visited by an angel, who bestows upon him a prophecy. The New York of Angels is far from Spiderman’s Big Apple, yet Garfield is tender, subtle, incredibly physical.
'You can love someone and fail them. You can love someone and not be able to—' #AngelsinAmerica pic.twitter.com/IXcle9plCp— National Theatre (@NationalTheatre) July 23, 2017
Denise Gough is incredible as Harper Pitt, bringing a character arc to life and showing her struggle from addiction through relapse to recovery and from heartbreak to acceptance. Her husband Joe, played by Russel Tovey, is a closeted mormon: Tovey delivers a strong performance – and bares his butt in the second part – but leaves something to be desired. James McArdle, as Louis, has perhaps the hardest job: Louis abandons Prior for Joe and is hardly the most likeable character, but his performance is thoroughly convincing, endearing at times.
Conversely, Nathan Lane, as Roy Cohn (a real lawyer who once worked with Trump), is horrible, but wonderfully so. He’s nasty, disrespectful, desperate; but Lane shows his versatility. when he reappears as a camp ghost. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, first introduced as the surreal Mr Lies but primarily playing ex-drag queen Belieze, is fabulous, growing immensely throughout the shows and becoming perhaps the most lovable and genuine character by the end.
'Hire a lawyer, sue somebody, it's good for the soul.' #AngelsinAmerica pic.twitter.com/PLfTP8l2Sy— National Theatre (@NationalTheatre) August 7, 2017
Susan Brown, who has probably the most understated part as Hannah Pitt, demonstrates the most incredible diversity: she opens both parts with monologues, first as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, an elderly orthodox Rabbi, then as Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, ”The World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik”. And finally, Amanda Lawrence, who plays the eponymous angel that appears at the end of Millennium Approaches, is incredibly athletic, helped around the stage with her enormous wings by several “Angel Shadows”. Explaining her descent, there is a real desperation, a strange eroticism: it’s captivating.
Both plays are beautiful to watch. Lighting and sound design are perfect, atmospheric: neon tubes highlight different area, bring to life a timeless, urgent and seedy New York.
Part I has a delicate revolving set in several parts, condensing the action, linking the disparate parts together. These eventually recede, transforming the stage into a barren void with a peculiar metal structure looming over it. Part II instead uses fractured segments of set on wheels or lifted in – just as the parts come together, something has broken – with the limits of the stage revealed in a brief visit to Heaven.
'My favorite angel. I like them best when they’re statuary.' #AngelsinAmerica pic.twitter.com/eMpwT2dD2u— National Theatre (@NationalTheatre) May 28, 2017
Costumes are faultless: wigs and makeup make some of the cast unrecognisable in their smaller roles. The speed of some of the costume changes is unbelievable (there’s even a brief joke made of this), yet nothing goes awry. The only slight hiccup came with ambition, with wires used to make the angel fly, but the setup was clunky, disrupting the otherwise very careful and considered choreography.
To be doing these two plays for several months is an almost unbelievable undertaking, especially with both parts being performed in one day on multiple occasions. But it is entirely worthwhile. It is funny – hilarious at points – and moving and incredibly intelligent. The themes and messages of this play – faith, hope, life and death – are as relevant now as ever, if not more so.