I confess I had never heard of Angels in America by Tony Kushner before the National Theatre production was announced, but after reading the hype around it I decided to see what all the fuss was about at the NT Live screenings.
It is in many ways a difficult play to describe, but put simply it is the story of 5 characters living in New York in the mid 1980s during the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration. It explores a myriad of themes, including life, death, love, sex, heaven and hell. The fear and uncertainty surrounding AIDS and homosexuality in entrenched throughout the play and shown through the experiences of many characters. Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) rejects the label of homosexuality as he states that homosexuals have no ‘clout’. The married Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) is unable to accept that he may be gay, and Louis (James McArdle) cannot cope with supporting his longterm partner Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) when he is diagnosed with AIDS, and leaves him. Although thankfully in many ways things have changed for the better for gay people and those living with HIV, but unfortunately the fact that there is a Republican administration in the White House at the moment who has recently banned transgender people from serving in the military means that the play is still relevant today, not least because Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s legal adviser.
The production itself was fantastic. All of the actors’ performances were stellar, particularly Andrew Garfield. Nathan Lane also managed to make me feel slight sympathy for such a detestable character. I also thought the staging was great, especially the revolve when switching scenes, and when the set was pulled back during one of Harper’s (Denise Gough) hallucinations to reveal the huge Lyttleton stage. The way the angel was moved around the set by ‘phantoms’ was also very clever.
As for the play itself, I’m unsure. There were things I loved about it but others I’m undecided about. I’m sure in a way the fact that the play has such a hype around it played against it because I was expecting to be completely blown away. First of all I felt it was too long, although in fairness to this production it did not feel long at all when I was watching. However, during some scenes I did wonder what they were adding to the play, such as the opening of Perestroika (part 2) with the oldest living Bolshevik. I was also confused by the angels, and especially felt that Prior’s angel’s explanation of how God abandoned them was explained clearly enough.
However, it is a play that has stayed with me and I have found myself thinking about it a lot after seeing it. I have also enjoyed listening to some of the National Theatre’s podcasts with some of the cast and the director, Marianne Elliot. I definitely would like to read it, as being such a wordy play it was easy to miss some things when watching. The play itself may not have blown me away, but the production and performances have meant that in some ways it has stayed at the forefront of my mind for a while. I’m definitely glad that I went to see it.