Notes from the Angels in America Platforms @ National Theatre

“OH LOOK,” I hear all three of you say, “ANOTHER BLOODY ANGELS IN AMERICA PIECE.”

Well screw you, it’s only the fourth. I plan to do five by the end of the run.

Anyway because I am a grade A* NERD I’ve been going to the series of platforms the National Theatre have held discussing Angels in America. I made some notes, and I thought I’d write them up.*

*Translation: likely to be of interest to no one but me. Deal with it.

*

Tony Kushner in Conversation with Ola Animashawun, Friday 30th June 2017.

The minute Kushner steps onto the stage you are immediately, acutely aware that he is the smartest person in the room. It’s not like he carries himself with a smugness, he doesn’t. But there’s no questioning his intelligence. His first answer runs to about 5 minutes, and it was supposed to be brief. I later realise that a 5 minute answer for Tony Kushner is brief, something I should have known beforehand having sat through approximately 23 hours of Angels in America by this point.

A lot of what he says is familiar to me. He talks about where he was politically and emotionally when he started to write Angels, and charts it from long-form poem, to Sigrid Wurschmidt (the woman for whom he wrote the part of the Angel, but who died before the first production) suggesting it become a two-part piece. He mentions that it was actually in the contract he signed when Angels was commissioned that it had to be under 2 and a half hours in length. Thank God that bit was ignored.

It’s when he moves away from Angels that he gets really interesting. Writers should not be worried about preaching to the converted, because if theatre is a spiritual or even religious experience, he says, then that is exactly what ministers do; they preach to the converted. Why should theatre expect to change minds? By implication, he seems to suggest that theatre can only complicate, not completely reconceive people’s perceptions. I think about how it’s one of Angels’ enigmas that a play that rallies so furiously against neoliberalism cannot present us with a concrete alternative, instead we get a loose community, nothing particularly radical. It’s been suggested this is partly why Angels was so quickly accepted into the dramatic/American/Western canon. I’m not sure how much I agree.

He’s also refreshingly coherent when it comes to analysing Donald Trump in apocalyptic terms. He seems angrier with Trump than he was with Reagan, but it’s tempered. He has no interest in writing about him, he says, because unlike Roy Cohn, Trump’s contradictions are not centred around anything. He sees Trump as the logical result of a Republican party that has drilled into people the idea that government is the enemy; the only outcome of this is going to be the destruction of the government by the government itself.

Inevitably, he runs out of time. He speaks quickly, but with long hesitations; like he is desperately putting the words in order moments before they leave his mouth. There are too many ideas bouncing round for him to be simple in his thoughts.

*

Andrew Garfield and Denise Gough in Conversation with Kate Bassett, Monday 3rd July 2017.

The theatre is packed, stalls and circle. People evidently want to hear these actors talk at 2 o’clock on a Monday, although it does seem to be split quite starkly between students and pensioners.

Gough and Garfield get a very long introduction; Gough clarifies that she is the “darling” of the National Theatre. She’s hilarious, eager to talk, enthusiasm visible. Garfield is quieter, more thoughtful. Perhaps he’s just saving himself for the evening’s performance, I wouldn’t blame him.

They talk at length about what exactly Angels in America means. Garfield explains that it was offered to him, and when a part like Prior is offered to you, you can’t really turn it down. He later goes on to say that it was Kushner’s enthusiasm for him in the role that allowed him to accept it on moral grounds – Prior being one of the great gay characters of the theatre, and Garfield being – well – not. He later goes on to joke that he is basically living as a gay man without the physical act. This will later be taken out of context by outlets that really should know better. But anyway. He holds viewing parties for RuPaul’s Drag Race on his days off, apparently.

Gough jokes that she basically thought Angels would be holiday after People, Places and Things. She was looking forward to lots of time off-stage, only to realise that actually the concentration required to stay at such an emotional pitch for so long was even harder than being on-stage every second of PPT, so much so she says she’s looking forward to going back to it this autumn. Both Gough and Garfield agree that the experience of doing Angels is unlikely to be matched in their professional lives. Gough ranks it alongside PPT in terms of emotional satisfaction. They both have trouble with the set, apparently. Gough hates waiting for the aperture to open before her first speech, and apparently the turntable is so disorientating for Garfield that when he makes his entrance, all his thoughts about being at a funeral and being diagnosed evaporate, and he might as well be Andrew Garfield waving at the audience.

An audience member later asks how do you look after yourselves. It’s a strange question, and its not. Garfield seems genuinely pleased to have been asked it. They both talk about how to reconcile being a professional with the toll a play like Angels inevitably takes on your body, particularly on a two play day. Gough rattles off a list of treatments and rituals; reiki, chakras, massage, among many other unpronounceables. Apparently, she was off to cleanse Garfield’s room before the show that night. Garfield doesn’t seem to have the rituals down like Gough, but he talks about the lack of satisfaction on the nights they perform only one part of the story.

Both actors talk about how the process of acting in Angels is really a matter of weaving yourself into the tapestry of the work; Gough draws attention to the scene on the promenade in Perestroika, a scene that doesn’t wholly make sense – because it was dreamt by Kushner. When she asked him to explain it in rehearsal, he couldn’t. And yet, she still has to play it as truthfully as any of the beautifully constructed psychologically exact scenes in Millennium. It becomes a matter of trusting the words, and trusting that it makes sense on the grand canvas. Angels is not just about trust in content it seems, but relies on it in form.

*

Marianne Elliott in Conversation with Susannah Clapp, Monday 3rd July 2017.

I get the impression that Marianne Elliot likes to gossip. I like to gossip. It’s probably the collision of these two things that made this my favourite platform of the four.

She talks first about how she came to direct the play. She’s never seen it on stage, but read it and had a visceral reaction to the material. When she discovered the Old Vic had the rights(!) she badgered them to let her direct it, despite the fact they already had a director for what was intended to be Spacey’s swansong. Presumably he’d have played Cohn, which is an interesting prospect. When this didn’t happen, she got the National to get the rights, and the production proceeded from there. I wonder what Angels would have looked like at the Old Vic. I can’t say the idea of this play in that space entices me.

What does the play mean?

An audience member asks if she was hesitant to cast Garfield in a gay role, denying the opportunity to a gay actor. She talks – I think quite rightly – about how the burden of representation essentially means nothing if it is embodied in a single actor, and so it was more important to ensure there was a mix of sexualities in both the cast and creative team than it was to have Prior played by a gay actor.

The conversation turns towards the visual landscape of the play, and the design process. Ian McNeill and Elliott worked on it for 18 months, in which time Elliott had no other projects, so it was a long process of working out exactly how the piece would move, particularly Millennium, with its jump cuts and overlaps. She embarks on a monologue that I’m fairly certain qualifies as the best bit of new writing I’ve seen on the Lyttleton stage; explaining the thought process behind every major scene change in the production. She goes on for about ten minutes. A lot of it I thought was evident, but there’s moments of clarification that allow things to fall into place; for example, she traces all the surrealism in the design back to the shared hallucination scene in Millennium. I had thought it was drawn from the Antarctica sequence, but she explains that it is after this point that things start to shift just enough to be different. It becomes more elastic. And the other ‘Ican’tbelieveIdidn’tnoticethatmoment’ came when she talked about the ceiling piece. It looms in the air like a piece of aircraft engine, and was designed to contain the actors in the space physically from above when everything else is stripped away in Perestroika. It’s also a proscenium arch. And suddenly all the design ideas fall into place. We see a mirror image; a theatre reflected in itself.

Angels was rehearsed over three months, the first day of which coincided with Trump’s first day in office. She talks about the nightmarish logistics of staging it; there were three rooms rehearsing, one for flying, one for the assistant directors to go off and work with the actors, and the third was Elliott’s. They rehearsed Millennium for the first week, then Perestroika for the second, and then they began running them together. There were a lot of plates being spun.

When they talk about the scale of the piece, and how long it took to get a grip on, and just what it costs from those involved, I do start to feel differently towards it. I thought about the thing Glen Berger said about the Spiderman musical: it was a “machine built by the Gods to teach humility.” I don’t feel that way about Angels (obviously, I mean, come on, I’m me,) but there’s a sense it’s more than a play, more than liveness, it sort of becomes your life.

*

Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey in Conversation with Matt Wolf, Monday 17th July 2017.

I realises very quickly I could listen to Nathan Lane talk about anything. Which is fortunate, because he talks a lot. But he also forces himself to stop talking, even when questions are put to him, to allow Tovey to be the focus – focus he’ll pull in a second for the sake of a joke. Very early on they are asked if they view Angels as two plays or as one. Lane apparently sees it as a “huge package,” and apparently Lane is drawn to huge packages. There’s no mistaking him, he’s an old school vaudevillian at heart. Interestingly, Tovey says he sees Angels as two separate pieces. After all, he says, we don’t refer to them as ‘Part One’ and ‘Part Two,’ but as ‘Millennium’ and ‘Perestroika.’

They are both asked what it’s like, as two openly gay men, to inhabit characters so consumed with self-loathing, loathing centred around their sexuality. I wonder whether that question is slightly intrusive for very early on in the conversation (like, five minutes in) but both men seem interested in it; Tovey remarks that he can leave a character in the theatre fairly easily, but that on the morning after a two-play day he wakes with morning-after guilt. Tovey also explains that he has a history with Angels; after seeing the HBO series the fountain of Bethesda became something of a pilgrimage for him, taking photos with family, ex-lovers and his dog in front of it. Lane explains his psychological theory behind Roy Cohn; a man who could never allow himself to be vulnerable from childhood, a schoolboy who even then was brokering deals.

They both agree that playing Angels in rep is a relief, there’s less worry of burnout and complete exhaustion. Doing Angels eight times a week would be a different ordeal entirely. Lane mentions that he was told the Lyttleton is the toughest stage to play at the National, and discovered almost immediately that it was in fact the case. I hadn’t noticed, but they all wear mics for Perestroika apparently, because there’s just nothing on stage to bounce the sound off.

It’s surprising – and somehow not – that it’s Tovey who mentions Trump first. When asked about playing Joe Pitt, he says that he didn’t want people to be happy about what happens to his character. He didn’t want to make a villain – he didn’t want people to look at Joe and see Donald Trump. The dynamic between Joe and Roy is – we presume – similar to that between Roy and Trump, although possibly without the “daddy complex” as Tovey calls it. Lane explains that he did a mountain of research on Cohn, talking to people that admired him rather than those who despised him. Trump was one of “Roy’s Boys,” as the real Roy Cohn called them, and Roy was the man Trump turned to for advice when he was sued for racial discrimination in the 70s. Cohn suggested he sued them back. It’s not hard to see where Trump learned from Cohn. Indeed, it’s been commented that his recent remarks about the Rosenbergs sound like a speech from Angels. But Lane is also insistent that this is separate from playing the role. Trump never once enters his head once he’s onstage, although he accepts it’s very much in the audience’s. Kushner’s Cohn is fiction, after all, and Lane points out that Cohn was never treated by a black nurse in a normal hospital, among other changes Kushner made. But the resonances are there, in the fabric of the thing, and for the first time they are visible in performance.

Also: Kushner wrote new dick jokes to cover Lane’s costume change at the end of Millennium.

*

I had more notes than I realised. Eh.

So. Do I write a conclusion? Do I do a ‘THIS IS WHAT I LEARNT’ thing?

If anything, and this is drawn from seeing the play again as well as the platforms, I am only more impressed with it as I discover more. It’s my favourite play, I now say that without any hesitation. Its production at the National is superlative, and the best thing about seeing people involved in it talk is that they clearly care very deeply about it too.

 

Photo by Helen Maybanks.


 

Here’s everything else I’ve written on Angels in America, if you’re interested.

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