Angels in America @ National Theatre: Heaven is a Place on Earth

It would have taken a hurricane, the catastrophic failure of the London Underground, and probably a tidal wave to stop me getting to Angels in America. I’ve already written about my excitement here, and about some of my readings of the text here, so I’m restricting myself to only writing about this production. And it’s bloody good.

If you’re not familiar with Angels in America, it’s essentially the story of Prior Walter, a man who at the start of the play tells his boyfriend Louis that he has AIDS. Louis works at the Court of Appeals with Joe, who is married to Harper. They’re both Mormons, but Joe is a closeted gay man. Joe works for a (real) man called Roy Cohn – who is also diagnosed with AIDS. There’s also Hannah, Joe’s mother, and Belize, Prior’s ex-boyfriend. And the Angel. And a whole bunch of periphery characters played by the same actors. The play charts their various interactions, how the relationships between them form and are destroyed.

Prepare the way – here be production spoilers in abundance.

*

If Marianne Elliott has a speciality, it is in grounding the language of a text and heightening the visual landscape encapsulating it. We saw it in War Horse, Curious Incident, and Husbands and Sons; these pieces have human language often chasing realism, so she gets her actors to make psychological sense while simultaneously stretching the physical space into something theatrical. It is much the same with Angels in America, which is a good fit for her method, as the language escalates from human subtleties to massive philosophical ideas in seconds. The production just oozes confidence, is stylish but not overly stylised, and focuses the attention onto the story, onto the actor.

The first two-and-a-bit acts of Millennium Approaches take place on a downstage wagon with three turntables running the width of the stage; rooms with sliding windows spin in and out of the light, framing and reframing the characters. The horizontal axis of the Lyttelton is emphasised. Corridors blur into each other, walls are incomplete, the rooms and offices are the same, but not. It’s domestic, not realistic. Ian MacNeil’s set chooses (correctly, I think) to ignore the idea of ‘New York’ altogether. There’s no Empire State Building here, far more important is the idea of the city, and cities in Angels in America are places of death, misery, and abandonment. Were it not for the wide demographic representation, Angels could be taking place anywhere.

When we go to Antarctica, this all changes. The wagon tracks back, the domestic shrinks into the darkness of the rear stage, calling our attention to the obscured realities within. The snow falls  and the skeletal metal structure suspended in the air looms closer. The physical rooms are still just in reach, visible in the distance, but now it looks as though the domestic must force itself into the vastness of space; the characters are flung into the abyss. The stage deepens, the space expands and the play becomes far bleaker.

It feels like three Elliott shows in one; the common thread in the design of her previous work seems to be an attempt to cohere the landscape through one character’s sensibilities, but such an approach does not work with a play as disparate as Angels, so she uses three (maybe four) different visual landscapes to tell the story. There are the linear turntables, the emotion-exposing Antarctic, the Brechtian emptiness (the snow machines of Antartica are hidden, the rain machine later on is exposed for the audience to see,) and then in the final moments a blank simplicity. Over all this lingers the aforementioned giant skeleton of metal suspended in the air, it looks like a chuck of old machinery, part of an aeroplane wing perhaps, punctuated with lightbulbs. When even the empty Antarctic disappears, we discover that this is the ceiling of the Council Room in Heaven, Heaven made omnipresent. But it also furnishes the fountain of Bethesda with its water (here represented with neon lighting, a recurring fixture throughout the set.) It gives life, then, both the water of the fountain, and Heaven.

*

The politics of the play (of any play, probably,) are ignited by liveness. In the introduction to the newly-published text Kushner says he feels he writes “perched on the knife’s edge of terror and hope.” There are certainly moments in Angels that (ugh) feel as though they were written yesterday (*smacks self*) because it often does feel like the world is perched on that same knife edge. There is a palpable sense of something terrible being imminent, a sensation that moves from the biological apocalypse on the stage into a sense of political apocalypse in the auditorium. This equation of biological and political catastrophe is in the text, in the AIDS/Reaganism dichotomy, but in performance there is an extra recognition. It was quite startling to me just how many lines got their own rounds of applause, out of recognition and approval, not just hilarity.

I’ve wondered in the past whether Angels is a play more interested in theology than politics, but this is a production that stresses the politics and brings it to the forefront. Perhaps that is the inevitable fact of live performance; politics is a quicker, more satisfying immediate hit to the audience, and theology is left in the text for those who want to dig for it.

This felt most palpable in one of my favourite scenes, Act 3 Scene 2 of Millennium, when Belize and Louis are having coffee, and Louis is endless monologuing about the state of the nation, in a massively racist way. Elliott puts the actors far downstage, impinging upon audience time and space. This is not a historical conversation, Elliott suggests, one that should be confined to the centre-stage of fiction. But the scene has its own evocations of millenarianism, the “purple” joke is a great punchline but also anticipates the Angels arrival (the purple light Prior sees before the Angel’s entrance) By making this conversation about now, Elliott suggests our own approaching Millennium, while also distancing this idea from immediate recognition. A similar effect is achieved with the slightly earlier scene where Louis and Joe converse on the steps of the court house. Louis is made immediate, Prior somewhat historical.

There’s also a moment that reminded me of Roman Tragedies; at the end of the second act of Millennium, Louis/Prior and Harper/Joe are arguing in a split scene. Elliott overlaps the spaces, so Prior is shouting past Joe in order to get to Louis, and Harper accuses over Louis to get to Joe. It’s like the Caesar/Calpurnia and Brutus/Portia scene in #RomTrag; although the dialogue doesn’t overlap (excepting a scream from Prior that carries across the space) the circumstances of both couples are similar, physicalized in this way.

*

As Prior, the man who anchors the show, Andrew Garfield is quite frankly brilliant. The minute the bench spun around and he was revealed in that pose and in that coat, I was sold. His characterisation is probably one of the most brilliant I have ever seen. Yes, it tips into shoutiness occasionally but maybe I only felt that because I was at the front. He completely disappears inside Prior’s lesion-ridden skin, becomes him totally in voice and mannerisms, he has excellent comic timing. It was only in the curtain calls you even sensed how exhausting a performance it must be; Prior spends so much of the show barely holding it together, dissolving into tears in seconds. It’s clearly a draining and demanding performance, emotionally and physically, but I didn’t think about any of this until afterwards because he was playing it with such conviction, and such wit, and with a huge emotional depth. The end was incredibly moving.

For me, the most interesting character in Angels is Louis, I think because what he does is so awful and yet completely understandable. His politics are deeply, deeply flawed. In my head he was a bit pathetic, a bit apologetic for being such a complete ARSE. James McArdle inverts all this, he seems to draw from Louis’ sexual confidence, there’s no sense of apology in his politics, even when he’s clearly rattled Belize. I was never sure whether his tears were genuine, whether he was genuine. What was even more interesting, was that I imagine it’s easy to play Louis as the ‘straight man’ compared to Prior, but McArdle makes Louis just as much of a screaming queen (Jason Isaacs’ description.) There’s less a sense that Louis is self-destructive, as he just makes a catastrophic mistake. Also, I want his wardrobe.

Denise Gough has described Harper Pitt as “the saddest woman in the world.” I can certainly why she thinks this based on her portrayal. Even before Harper is chewing down pine trees with her teeth there is a latent ferality. She spends much of the first play in a well-worn nightdress. This is absolutely a woman trapped in her environment who can only find joy in the imagined. She certainly does not seem an optimist. But there’s an innocence Gough finds; she seems to genuinely not have realised her husband’s gay, nor is she malicious towards Prior in the hallucination scene. The final speech in Perestroika proper is Harper’s, on a flight (that may or may not be real) to San Francisco. It’s heart-breaking but hopeful, and I’ve thought a lot about how Gough might play it. Simply, it turns out. With the whole auditorium in her peripheral vision, she’s sat in her seat, talking to us, not herself. Gough’s raw magnetism makes it work. And her smile at the end just twists the knife for good measure.

Joe Pitt, the ‘straight man’ is probably the trickiest role in Angels. No, it’s not as emotionally demanding as Prior, nor as politically complicated as Louis, not even as funny as Belize. But Russell Tovey manages to make Joe human enough that we can be interested by him. There’s a crucial scene in Millennium, where Joe and Louis sit eating hot dogs. Tovey finds a quiet intelligence to Joe, and an innocence. It’s interesting because it makes Harper and Joe work as a couple; you get why they’ve both bought into the façade. But Joe is arguably just as self-destructive as Louis. By the end of the third act of Perestroika, we see Joe is just as volatile as the rest, stripping himself on the beach (McArdle’s face is brilliant in this scene.) Joe is not a simple role for the rest of the company to bounce off, and Tovey never plays him as such.

Then there’s Roy Cohn, the “polestar of evil.” If the narratives of the other characters are journeys of discovery and acceptance, Roy’s is one of destruction and disintegration. Everything he has is stripped from him, like King Lear but with a sense of humour. Nathan Lane, an actor capable of huge comedy and huge tragedy, is perfect in the role. When his character is introduced to the audience, with a brilliant monologue in which Roy is trying to have three phone conversations at once, Lane has the audience instantly. It’s like witchcraft. He knows exactly how to get a laugh, and as such, knows how to be truly horrifying and cruel. Millennium belongs to Roy as much as it does to Prior, but the scene in Perestroika where he provokes Belize into a hideous argument simply for his own satisfaction. Lane plays it with the relish of a vaudevillian, making it all the more disturbing, without ever falling into caricature.

Susan Brown is a chameleon. She plays an elderly Rabbi, the oldest living Bolshevik, Ethel bloody Rosenberg, and a Mormon mother (Hannah Pitt) – and she manages to convince as all four. She was particularly good in Perestroika, in the scenes with Prior. You could watch the smirk on Hannah’s face turn into a smile as she developed a sense of humour. I think making that arc work convincingly is a feat, particularly when all hell is breaking loose around the character. It was the stillness with which Ethel says the kaddish that got under my skin though, she starts off quietly, helping Louis to speak the Aramaic, growing louder as she speaks it for her own conscience (if ghosts(?) have consciences I suppose) before twisting her face as she spits out the final stinger “you sonofabitch.” It’s the most understated performance of the lot, but a brilliant one nonetheless.

As the Angel herself, Amanda Lawrence is suitably threatening. Like Brown, she plays many roles, rather than the simple doubling of the other actors. Again, like Brown, she convinces as all. Her Angel is not a one-woman performance however, and as it dawned on me that a woman with wings on wires was too simple for this production, it became clear that Lawrence was going to be a very different Angel. Elliott has taken Kushner’s 2007 suggestion that “it’s OK if the wires show” as inspiration, it seems, to make the Angel many things “manifest in One” literally. The ensemble move the Angel’s wings, she becomes a sort of puppet, extending her physicality. Realism is well-abandoned by her entrance, as Lawrence is held aloft on the shoulders of the other actors, who hold her body as she contorts, an approach that chimes with Kushner’s statement that Brechtian approaches are “consonant with the act’s… storytelling.” Lawrence’s Angel is extraordinarily physical and sexual. More Miss Havisham than Lady Liberty in appearance, the idea that she is grieving for her lover as much as Prior is never far away.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize looked like he was having a ball. The character is delicious, and the number of rounds he got after a stinger were many (personal favourite: “my jaw aches at the memory.”) Without meaning any disrespect to when he’s talking, I think my favourite moments where when he was simply reacting to something ridiculous going on. Particularly in the café scene with Louis, where a simple eyebrow raise got a huge laugh. Or the second act of Perestroika: “the sexual politics of this are-“ “Very confusing. I know.” Belize spends so much time just watching, offering perspective, that when he finally gets to talk at length about how he hates America, there’s an unusual sort of gravity to it. You take him seriously because he has been so ridiculous, you’re in no doubt Belize is a truthful character and Stewart-Jarrett can deliver this in spades.

I can’t lie, this is probably the best bunch of actors I’ve ever seen on a stage together. There’s not a single weak link.

*

There’s no doubting that Angels in America is a dense piece of drama; Kushner interweaves the political, emotional, philosophical and theological so tightly that there is so much to chew on. But this production has a clarity in its storytelling that makes it always accessible to the audience. I’ve seen a few criticisms of the ‘clunky’ staging, I’m not sure what they mean by ‘clunky’ as it seemed to me that the piece unfurled itself as smoothly as the text allows. Because Elliott grounds the play on the actors, it doesn’t matter that every time we see a hospital room it’s the wrong way around, or in another part of the stage entirely. Architecture is not important here, because the walls of reality are breaking down, and it is the human beings we follow through the story.

Angels is a cry against reactionary politics; claims that mankind should stay still, and not migrate and progress. It’s not hard to see the parallels and this production never shies away from them, without ever smacking the audience around the face with them.

It never dips into sentiment. There have been accusations that Perestroika does do this, and I can see how in the hands of lesser actors it would be terrible. But Kushner refuses to tie Perestroika up neatly, so while Millennium is possibly the ‘better’ play, Perestroika feels the more anarchic in performance. And while it is a comedy, as most of the situations in Perestroika are resolved amicably, the actors never milk a laugh. The comedy comes from the text, not from appendages to it.

*

Look, I know I rave a lot on this blog. Because I choose to only write about stuff that excites me, that means I write more about good stuff. I’m aware that the more positive I am, the less some people are likely to believe me, or take me seriously. But the fact of the matter is, I’m not a cynic, at least not when it comes to theatre. I’m still wide-eyed and probably incredibly naïve and lord knows I’ve a tendency for hyperbole. I can’t claim that everyone will love Angels in America, but I did. And even among the brilliant things I’ve seen this year, it stands apart.

NOTE

My thoughts on the design of Angels and how Angels works as a form of Brechtian theatre is largely informed by Art Borreca’s essay ‘“Dramaturging” the Dialectic: Brecht, Benjamin, and Declan Donnellan’s production of Angels in America,’ in Geis, Deborah R and Steven F. Kruger (eds) Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America pp. 245-260

 

Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s