It doesn’t happen very often, but someday, on an otherwise unremarkable evening, you may find yourself in the privileged position of seeing a production that dashes from curtain-up to final bows in one exhilarating, flawless arc. The National Theatre’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part 1: Millennium Approaches), which closed in London’s Lyttleton Theatre last Saturday, is that production. Global audiences are luckily still able to witness this miraculous staging of Tony Kushner’s seminal work by attending a screening organised by the National Theatre Live initiative.
It may come as a bit of a shock that a play set during the height of the Reagan administration’s wilful mismanagement of the AIDS crisis feels more relevant now than ever. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that the rifts that were developing in American politics and society in the mid-’80s have since eroded into deep, treacherous ravines that threaten the survival of both sides of the divide. Whatever the case may be, the play’s running time of more than three hours flies by, and none of Kushner’s dangerously sharp lines seem at all superfluous.
The year is 1985, the place New York City. Joe (Russel Tovey) and Harper (Denise Gough) are a Mormon couple living more like roommates than lovers; Prior (Andrew Garfield) and Louis (James McArdle) are a gay couple who share a deep connection but are torn apart by a devastating diagnosis; Roy (Nathan Lane) is the foul-mouthed, law-bending attorney who made sure the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 and hasn’t looked back since, and Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is Prior’s friend and a former drag queen.
This production, directed by Marianne Elliott, uses a clever revolving set, dramatic lighting changes, and a thoughtfully developed sound design to make sure the action moves seamlessly from one scene to the next. As one couple’s quiet bedroom revolves away, the neon lights and background chatter of a bar replace it; once the high-powered attorney’s finished his spiel, we suddenly find ourselves in the men’s bathroom where another character is crying into the sink. Deft sound and lighting changes help convey Prior’s hysteria as he hallucinates about long-dead ancestors and crumples in fear when his nurse starts speaking in tongues. Quivering strings accompany his drag-powered soliloquy.
Like the production design, the cast contains no weak links. Tovey portrays the conflicted, closeted Joe with real sensitivity. (When Joe gingerly touches his lip after Louis wipes away some errant Pepto-Bismol for him, it truly looks like the first time Joe’s ever experienced anything approaching a gentle caress.) Gough’s Harper is enthralling in her neuroticism, and one can’t help but feel for her, despite the fact that the cause of most of Harper’s anguish, her husband Joe, has already claimed his share of empathy from the house.
Garfield and McArdle’s exchanges are electrifying. As his character battles the physical and mental ravages of Aids, Garfield keeps the audience riveted by exposing Prior’s deepest fears and struggles with remarkable sensitivity — and humour: In one memorable scene pulled off with excellent comic intent by Garfield, Prior attempts to ward off his hallucinations with holy water dispensed from a spray bottle.
Louis leaves Prior once the effects of the latter’s disease begin to take too much of an emotional toll, and may consequently seem like the quintessential bad guy on paper. McArdle’s clear empathy for his character’s inner struggle, however, guarantees a favourable reception from the audience. Louis’s argument with an unimpressed Belize (played to brow-arching perfection by Stewart-Jarrett) about race and oppression is guaranteed to leave modern audiences feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Have white people really been having the same tired conversation since Rubik’s Cubes were all the rage?
Lane, whose gravelly bark is a perfect fit for the part of the abrasive Roy, delivers an astounding performance. His energy doesn’t dim for a second, even when he should by all rights be down and out. The veteran actor moves between moments of rage and calm objectivity like the part was written for him. His is possibly the most convincing, underplayed combative drunk this reviewer has ever seen on stage or screen. It is to Lane’s credit that whatever one’s feelings about his character’s deeply immoral lawyerly dealings, it’s entirely impossible not to find oneself rooting for him as this wholly frightening man explains the dynamics of power, clout, and masculinity to the doctor who’s just handed him an Aids diagnosis, even as he concludes that he’s not gay (and therefore ‘weak’); he just sleeps with men.
There’s no arguing that the world is poised on an uncertain knife edge, largely because of recent political developments in the United States. Perhaps, then, part of the play’s enduring power in the new millennium is apparent in Prior’s exclamation to his nurse: ‘I feel like something terrible is on its way’. Seeing this play might not help you forget your own anxieties about what terrible things could be on their way in 2017 and beyond, but it might certainly help you understand those fears within the context of a different kind of destruction faced in a different time. But don’t let me be the judge of that; the cinema broadcast of this staggering production deserves full houses.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part 1 is part of the current National Theatre Live season and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 23rd and 24th of August. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za.