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Angels in America review at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – ‘super-sized’

Denise Gough and Andrew Garfield in Angels in America at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Everything about the National Theatre’s most eagerly anticipated show of the year is super-sized. Even the programme is a glossy, A4 special edition. The production itself boasts an extraordinary line-up of star names and the entire run has sold out in advance, apart from lottery and day seats.

That cast includes British movie actor Andrew Garfield (who performed in two shows in the NT’s Cottesloe as a teenager before heading to Hollywood), Broadway’s Nathan Lane (back on the London stage for the first time since The Producers in 2004), and NT stars Russell Tovey (one of the original History Boys), Olivier-winner Denise Gough and James McArdle.

Angels in America is also big on length, with the two parts together running to a full working day – close to eight hours of theatre. The play is even bigger on ideas, ambition and scope.

Tony Kushner’s kaleidoscopic two-play cycle tells the story of the emerging AIDS crisis of the early 1980s as it hit the gay community in New York, with a cast of real-life and fictional figures living through it.

They are dense, but also baggy and they frequently feel infatuated with the sound of their own words. They occasionally seem like a gay version of George Bernard Shaw. But they also play with form in liberating ways: conventional scenes of domestic realism throw off those shackles with abandon to enter hallucinatory realms of fantasy, mystery and mysticism. A character from 1980s New York meets his ancestors from previous centuries; another ends up in the Antarctic; there’s an angel whose wings are so wide they take six people to operate.

A kind of millennial angst hangs over the first part. Titled Millennium Approaches it premiered in a small theatre in San Francisco in 1991 before being re-staged at the Cottesloe in 1992, then in another new production on Broadway in 1993.

In it, a homeless psychotic woman predicts: “In the new century I think we will all be insane.” Twenty-five years on, that may have come true.

The Republicans don’t come out of this looking good. Yet the joy of Kushner’s play is to give the devil some of the best tunes. The most interesting and conflicted character on stage is the real-life Roy Cohn, a man who sleeps with men but disavows his own homosexuality, and who died of an HIV-related illness.

As played with tremendous, combustible rage and bravado by Nathan Lane, he is a villain but one who also eventually invites real compassion. One of the evening’s most haunting and moving scenes is when Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed after the prosecution Cohn led from the US Department of Justice, returns to say Kaddish over his body when he dies.

Both the first part and the second, Perestroika, a continuation rather than sequel, are more about personal than party politics. It deals with the limits of liberalism and the politicisation of AIDS: something we can see now, with hindsight, that helped the gay movement to achieve its current freedoms and sense of identity.

Angels in America was not only prescient, but also played its own defining part in that struggle by articulating it so powerfully; as Louis says: “What AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that’s it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fans you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.”

It makes a passionate case for reversing that position, and also speaks to the value of compassion and forgiveness in doing so. The characters experience a number of major betrayals. James McArdle’s Louis leaves his gay lover Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), after Prior’s AIDS diagnosis. Mormon lawyer Joe (Russell Tovey) leaves his wife Harper (Denise Gough) for Louis.

While Andrew Garfield slightly over-amplifies Prior’s feyness so that he seems to be self-consciously acting gay rather than seeming gay, McArdle perfectly catches the conflicts of helplessness and raw guilt that inform Louis. Tovey and Gough also plausibly convey the shame and distress of their lives together.

There are also hugely striking supporting performances, including those of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Louis’s nurse friend Belize, Susan Brown as Harper’s mother (as well as doubling up as Ethel Rosenberg) and Amanda Lawrence as the constantly mobile angel.

Director Marianne Elliott orchestrates it all magisterially. The staging elides effortlessly between realistic and fantasy worlds, with Ian MacNeil’s set providing constant surprises of its own as it uses the full depth and width of the Lyttelton stage, with crab-like figures scuttling across it to change locations.

It sometimes feels a bit clumsy: a strange metal dome helmet structure dominates the stage, but is really only used in the play’s final scenes, while the early sections are staged head-on with sets on three revolving turntables, before they are trucked back for the Antarctica scene. A hospital ward and office appear from below the stage.

What is most fascinating, though, is to see now how mainstream the play now feels. Where once it might have been a radical statement, Angels in America now plays like a raw, truthful documentary of where we’ve come from, and serves as a necessary reminder of those bleak times before AIDS became a treatable disease.

How Angels in America first took flight at the National

Angels in America, rehearsal pictures

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An ambitious revival of Tony Kushner's vertiginously and prodigiously powerful play