You would have to have been on a Valium-induced holiday to Antarctica not to have heard about Angels in America at the NT. War Horse director Marianne Elliott’s production of Tony Kushner’s two-part epic is perhaps the most anticipated opening of 2017, boasting an irresistible combination of legendary text and star-studded cast.
Kushner’s two plays – Millennium Approaches and Perestroika – received their UK premieres at the National in 1992/1993, Declan Donnellan’s productions stamping themselves in theatrical folklore as a towering high-point in the theatre’s history.
Set in 1985 and dubbed “a gay fantasia on national themes” by Kushner, Angels In America concerns a group of interconnected New Yorkers struggling to cope with both the AIDS epidemic and the cut-throat capitalism of Reaganomics. But that summary doesn’t quite do justice to a sprawling, multi-faceted eight-hour story that liberally blends reality and fantasy, travelling from New York, to Salt Lake City, to the South Pole, and to heaven in the process.
Will the NT’s sold-out revival find a place among the stars, or does it fall back down to earth with a bump? Will Garfield bring his screen success back to the stage, and to the theatre he made his first steps at over a decade ago? Will Kushner’s play make sense over two decades since it was written? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…
In the early 90s, Kushner’s plays were a revelation – a frank, unapologetic, gloriously anarchic look at New York’s gay community, loves, lives, lesions and all. Twenty-five years later, do they still have the same earth-shattering effect?
Most critics reckon they do. “Kushner’s writing dazzles,” writes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★). “Though at times overblown and ostentatiously clever, its sheer imaginative reach can be exhilarating and it’s studded with devilish humour. Instead of appearing dated, it seems pointedly topical in its scrutiny of intolerance, immigration, religious values and national ideals.”
“This has a chilling resonance today,” agrees Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “What really hits one is the expansiveness of Kushner’s imagination and the rich opportunities he creates for actors.”
The play’s power, says Ben Brantley (New York Times), is in the way it “sees and celebrates aspiration and imperfection as inevitable companions… with a boundless imagination and a moral rage that roam, at length and at large, where few playwrights have dared to tread.”
“The core themes,” insists Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★), “about the price paid for denial, and the cost of change and acceptance, the end-times sense of foreboding many feel about the state of the planet too, still pulse with urgency; the emotions sear afresh.”
For Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★), Millennium Approaches and Perestroika still work because they refuse to submit to traditional playwriting formulae, playing with form throughout. “Conventional scenes of domestic realism throw off those shackles with abandon to enter hallucinatory realms of fantasy, mystery and mysticism,” he explains.
Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) concurs. For him, this “enormously long, enormously arch, symbol-drenched magical realist epic” still works because “its doomy, sardonic surrealism remains quite unlike almost anything else”. “There is a constant WTF factor,” he admits.
The only predominantly negative opinion, in fact, comes from Ann Treneman (the Times, ★★). “It feels sacrilegious to say it, but this Pulitzer and Tony-winning play by Tony Kushner has quite a few moments of tedium,” she confesses, going on to point out the “great deal of declamatory baggage, much of which seemed dated and cliched.”
It’s a sentiment gently echoed by Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★), and a few others. “It’s an astonishing piece of theatre,” confirms Hemming, but “not everything takes wing and the play is weighed down in several places by its sheer density and determined verbosity.”
Most, though, have only praise for Kushner’s work, Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★★) calling it both “an evocative history play” and “a powerful call to arms”, Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★) extolling it as “a vibrant hymn to the ragged soul of humanity itself, in all its messy, complicated imperfection”, and Sam Marlowe (Chicago Tribune) revelling in “eight hours of rich, provocative, thrilling theatre”.
Elliot’s revival has a cast most productions can only dream of. Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield heads the bill as Prior Wilson, an eloquent, erudite 30 year-old stricken down by Aids and haunted by hallucinations.
Alongside him are James McCardle as the agonisingly liberal Louis, Russell Tovey as still-in-the-closet Mormon lawyer Joe, Denise Gough as Joe’s pill-popping, day-dreaming wife, and Broadway stalwart Nathan Lane as corrupt kingpin Roy Cohn, the “polestar of human evil”.
It’s Garfield’s Prior that dominates the reviews, providing “one of the performances of the year” according to Lukowski and “a revelation” according to Connor Campbell (the Upcoming, ★★★★★). “Garfield is camp, fragile, funny and heartrending,” chimes Claire Webb (Radio Times, ★★★★★). “It’s hard to believe this is the same man who made a rather dull Superman [sic].”
“Garfield is boyishly intense, and intensely pitiable, as the young man whose mask of camp affectation, all fluttering hands and swan-like head-moves, slips to reveal howling, febrile despair as mortal dread seizes him,” writes Cavendish, while Billington praises a performance that “excellently combines a head-tossing, period-style camp with the desperate anguish of a man craving love in his hour of need.”
He is “droll, effete and fabulous” according to Swain, “vulnerable and heart-rendingly eloquent” according to Hitchings, and “crushingly powerful” according to Dom O’Hanlan (London Theatre, ★★★★★).
There are similarly lavish write-ups for his co-stars. “McArdle has a lovely natural authority as treacherous office worker Louis, who’s charismatic even when wallowing in self-pity,” claims Hitchings, while Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★) lauds Tovey as “restrainedly moving in his pious, panicked denial”.
Cavendish heaps praise on the “superb” Lane, who’s “puppyish one minute, a rottweiler the next, finally pained and emaciated”, and Matt Wolf (the Arts Desk, ★★★★★) is similarly admiring of the “rivetingly dreamy” Gough.
“The entire cast are just superb,” sums up Crompton, and it’s only Brantley that disagrees, reckoning that McArdle and Gough “aren’t quite on the same playing field” as Garfield and Lane.
Kushner’s work still strikes a powerful chord then, and this revival’s cast of notables more than earns its star-billing, but what about Elliott’s direction, and Ian MacNeil’s set? Do they make sense of Kushner’s fantasia?
Most critics think they do. For Hemming, Elliott’s production is “impressively fluent”, for Brantley it’s decorated with “impressive visual touches”, and for O’Hanlan it’s “richly spiritual and wholeheartedly triumphant”. Elliot’s staging “rises inventively to its flamboyant challenges, with a little sci-fi, a little homespun rough magic and a lot of high camp,” says Marlowe.
“Elliott authoritatively corrals these eddying plots, while creating space for both Kushner’s weird and wonderful flights of imagination, and the moving intimate interactions,” writes Swain, and Lukowski agrees, noting that Elliott’s “efficiency and discipline” allow the audience “a route though the boundless wilds of Kushner’s imagination.”
There’s particular praise for the climactic denouement of Millennium Approaches, when Kushner has an angel crash through the ceiling of Prior’s bedroom. “Elliott stages the idea of angelic intervention ingeniously,” explains Billington, “with Amanda Lawrence appearing with spreadeagled wings and supported by a group of spectral shadows.”
There’s less consensus over MacNeil’s set, which evolves from a twisting, neon-lit New York into a sparse dreamscape of twisted metal and barely furnished rooms, that reaches the full depth of the Lyttelton stage.
For Shenton, it’s a design that “slides effortlessly between realistic and fantasy worlds”, supplying “constant surprises of its own”, but for Cavendish, “there’s not quite enough TNT in the visuals”. “There’s an air of ‘will this do?'” he remarks.
The majority side with Cavendish, Wolf observing that “the forbidding visuals lend a cramped and brutalist feel to the turntable-drive first play, and only give the barest sense of time and place in the second”.
For some, Elliott’s revival of Kushner’s classic double-bill is nothing short of a triumph. It earned five-star reviews from the Evening Standard, the Telegraph, WhatsOnStage and the Arts Desk, and more.
For others, though, it’s not quite the smash-hit sensation it’s billed to be. Four-star reviews in the Guardian, The Stage, the FT and Time Out (and a two-star in the Times) nod towards a staging that’s still excellent, but not perhaps as revelatory as it was the first time round.
Kushner’s play remains a sprawling mishmash of politics, religion, theology and hallucination, though, and Garfield turns in an award-worthy exceptional performance too. Elliott’s production might have aimed for the stars and just missed, but it’s still landed pretty close to heaven.