‘Before life on earth becomes merely impossible, it will for a long time before have become unbearable.’ So speaks the Angel who has come to collect the Prophet from Earth, and given the current state of world affairs, one would be forgiven for believing this line of dialogue might have been composed only a few months ago. Of course, the play under discussion here is the National Theatre’s production of Perestroika, the second part of Tony Kushner’s 1991 tour-de-force Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, which is set during the AIDS crisis in mid-80s New York City.
The ailing Prior (played with real finesse by Andrew Garfield) continues to hear an angel’s voice in his fever dreams, and starts comporting himself like the prophet he believes he is. Garfield’s performance stirs the audience to spontaneous applause and some shouted votes of agreement when he tells his guilt-stricken ex-boyfriend Louis he needs to see him come back with physical scars.
Newly-uncloseted Joe (in a touching performance by Russel Tovey) explores his relationship with Louis (brought to gloriously neurotic life by James McArdle), while Joe’s heavily-medicated wife Harper (Denise Gough in all her wide-eyed intensity) fights her way back in from the cold. Joe finds and then loses himself in almost exactly the same moment; quite a spectacular thing to witness. Tovey’s Joe really comes alive in this second part of Angels in America. He realises he’s ‘of the world’, and this visibly frightens him.
Death stalks die-hard lawyer Roy Cohn (played by Nathan Lane with a kind of brittle machismo that’ll surely see this performance remembered and revered for a very long time), as his tough-as-well-manicured-nails nurse Belize (played by the dazzling Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) does his best to make sense of this blatantly amoral charge. Lane’s Cohn is visibly diminished and almost human now. ‘This is a lousy way to go,’ he moans, and Lane’s performance certainly doesn’t make his character’s demise easy to watch. Despite his uncontested horridness, one cannot help but feel a sincere pang of pity for Roy Cohn —testament both to Kushner’s genius and to Lane’s masterful handling of a highly complex character. Belize and Louis continue their ideological fight about the soul of America, and I’m tempted to say the indefatigable Belize steps out of the ring victorious here.
Susan Brown delivers a powerful, tightly-contained performance as Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother, who’s charged into New York City like a one-woman cavalry determined to put things right between her errant son and his long-suffering wife. ‘Tell her Mother Pitt is coming,’ the formidable Hannah instructs a policeman over the phone after she is informed that her daughter-in-law has been found, and the audience can’t help but tremble at the warning tone in her voice. Brown’s Hannah truly shines as she reveals more and more of her underlying nature.
The production overflows with so many stellar performances and spins along so effortlessly that the audience is drawn in completely and it becomes easy to overlook the subtle little touches of genius that hold it all together. Scene changes happen deceptively simply: A door frame revolves, a desk moves, and suddenly we’re in Joe’s office. A tree half shrouded in darkness, a solitary fire hydrant, the sound of traffic, and magically we’re on a park bench in New York City.
Prior’s meeting with the Angel (Amanda Lawrence in fine form) is punctuated by booming cinematic music and illuminated by bands of red, blue, and white light descending from the heavens. A grisly collection of rag-clad bodies moves in concert to make this imposing Angel come terrifyingly to life on spindly legs, turning her every gesture into something otherworldly. A combination of blockbuster music and excellently performed physical theatre makes Prior’s wrestling match with the Angel look like movie magic.
Director Marianne Elliott’s well-executed staging forces the audience to consider the interconnectedness of human suffering. After Louis declares his wish to ‘lie here and bleed for a while’ after having been on the receiving end of a punch, he remains in the background as Roy in his hospital bed is moved to centre-stage, while a supine Prior is visible in the far background. As in Millennium Approaches, we see the two couples each having a separate fight at the same time in the same physical space, and the two conversations seem to punctuate and enflame each other.
As different lives intersect, so do divergent eras. The past seems to reach into the present and assert its authority from the very start of the play, as a withered Russian Communist revolutionary makes a fiery speech announcing the search for a new theory now that Perestroika has dawned. Later, when Louis attempts to say an improvised Kaddish for Roy, Ethel Rosenberg lends a ghostly hand in performing the last rites for this most hated man who had campaigned for her execution thirty years before.
Ultimately, the play allows its characters to look forward and break free of the grip of the past. ‘A queen can forgive her vanquished foe,’ Belize tells the dying Roy. Those who survive the scourge of dread disease and dirty politics go on to face the dawn of a new millennium and the novel host of problems that would bring. Prior, that unwilling prophet, has finally overcome his demons, and the audience is granted a few moments before the final curtain to exhale with him. ‘I am tired of being done-to!’ he calls as he stands up to his disease. ‘I want more life. I can’t help myself; I do!’ His plea is defiant and pure and oh so achingly human, and it may just be the exact kind of poetry we all need to make sense of our place in this unbearable new age.
Angels in America, part 2: Perestroika is screened as part of the current National Theatre Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th of September. Book at sterkinekor.co.za.