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How Angels in America first took flight at the National Theatre

Jason Isaacs and Stephen Dillane in the National Theatre production of Angels in America in 1993. Photo: John Haynes Jason Isaacs and Stephen Dillane in the National Theatre production of Angels in America in 1993. Photo: John Haynes
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More than a generation has passed since London first witnessed Angels in America. These plays have now returned to the National Theatre, where they were produced in 1992/1993 to enormous critical acclaim and sustained public enthusiasm. Audiences responded warmly to the scale of playwright Tony Kushner’s bold aspirations.

In an essay for the New York Times in November 1993, now reproduced in a new edition of the plays published by Nick Hern Books, Kushner revealed his awareness of the risks he was running.

He wrote: “When I started to write these plays, I wanted to attempt something of ambition and size even if that meant I might be accused of straying too close to ambition’s ugly twin, pretentiousness. Given this country’s great and terrible history, given its newness and its grand improbability, its artists are bound to be tempted towards large gestures and big embraces.”

Kushner’s embrace is certainly wide, encompassing major themes evident in US society during the Reagan years when Aids had just announced its malign presence. Yet Declan Donellan, who directed both original productions at the National, puts forward an intriguing corrective to the received ideas about these plays.

“Angels in America is not a play about being gay, nor about having HIV, nor about politics, nor philosophy, nor history, nor memory, nor is it about the pain of living, the need for redemption, nor the need for some sense of soul,” he says.

Nancy Crane and Stephen Dillane in Angels in America at the Cottesloe, National Theatre in 1992. Photo: John Haynes

If the play is none of these things, what is it about?

“Angels in America is a great play because it is about people,” says Donellan. “People caught in desperate situations, people facing extreme dilemmas, people whose lives are intimately affected and changed by all the things mentioned above and many more.”

Even when reading the play, one feels seized by the lapels: Angels in America demands to be heard. Kushner achieves this effect by introducing the unprincipled, amoral figure of Roy Cohn, once henchman to the commie-hunting Senator McCarthy, now a closeted gay man dying of Aids who has lost none of his venom. Yet he has the horrible charisma of Richard III or Hannibal Lecter – a meaty role, with or without fava beans, for actor Henry Goodman.

“By 1992, there had been quite a lot of plays on gay themes, but what was utterly new about Angels in America was the combination of love with political debate,” says Goodman. “It was that mixture of intimacy and the political that hit me. It was a unique combination of fantasy and delicacy and imagination. And in a play partly about religion, as Roy Cohn, I was playing the devil, if a charming devil.”

Given the harrowing and unsparing nature of the subject matter and its treatment in the play, it’s no surprise that Goodman recalls feelings of exposure among the actors.

“It was very raw – emotionally raw – in rehearsals. Yet there was also a sense of a lacerating nakedness, of a vulnerability that we were able to use. Declan directed by making the process that we were all going through part of the presentation of the play.”

At first glance, it may seem contradictory that a play steeped in a particular time and place, should have enjoyed such international acclaim, with productions stretching from Adelaide to Zurich. The play has also been royally feted on home territory: it was nominated alongside works by Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee in a list of the top five Tony drama awards of all time in 2003.

“The success was enormous, partly because of the humanity of the play, partly because we were so humble and scared that it served the need for emotional nakedness,” Goodman argues. “We were never more than 20 or 30ft from the audience in the Cottesloe and all around us people were biting their nails and feeling very exposed while we had to be brave and yet intimate and vulnerable. The audience were literally knocked back in their seats and you sensed that they walked out of the theatre, feeling culpable because they had ignored the issues raised in the play that they had just seen,”

Marcus D’Amico and Sean Chapman in the National Theatre’s original production of Angels in America. Photo: Tristram Kenton

When the National revived Millennium Approaches and produced Perestroika towards the end of 1993, a wholly new cast was assembled to play the two parts of Angels in America in repertoire. Among the company were Clare Holman and Daniel Craig.

“I have very good memories of playing the wife of the future James Bond,” Holman says. “And I loved playing Harper, the Mormon wife on Valium.

“I thought that Stephen Dillane, playing Prior Walter, was absolutely wonderful. We had a fantastic cast and Tony and Declan made the perfect combination. Angels in America was one of those plays that broke all the rules of theatre. I’m very grateful to have been a part of it.”

Was Holman not daunted by the scale of this latter-day epic?

“Nowadays, when the running time for most plays is an hour to an hour and a half, I might think twice about agreeing to do both plays on the same day, spending seven hours in the theatre. But it wasn’t depressing to work on those plays. If anything, it was uplifting. It was very funny even when it was dealing with weighty matters and vice versa. And I particularly enjoyed coming on in an armchair to the sound of Que Sera.”

It is impossible not to see contemporary resonances in these plays and Donellan argues forcefully that these themes are once again vital ingredients of national and international conversations.

“We have been given imaginations to see reality clearly. We have first to see what is and not blind ourselves by seeing what ought to be. To many of us, the millennium darkens by the day.

“Populist politicians emerge to liberate us from our boring, old-fashioned constitutions. And consumerism, having stolen attention and lowered our self-esteem, hands us over to those who exploit the loser in us all.”

Angels in America runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, until August 19. The production will also be broadcast to cinemas by NT Live from July 20.

Read our review of Angels in America here

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