Angels on the South Bank: A Diary of a Two-Play Day

I kept a diary during the Angels in America two-play day on the 29/4/17, the first two-play day of this production. No spoilers, no analysis, just my immediate reactions in the moment.

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11:02 – It’s today! It’s today! Genuinely feels a bit like Christmas. THREE AND A HALF DAMN YEARS I’ve waited to see this. I’m attempting to walk a line between being ridiculously excited and managing my expectations. Worst case scenario today: I see a terrible production of Angels in America, which still involves me seeing Angels in America. Anything good about it is a bonus. And I’ve waited a long time to get to see it, period. AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH.

12:34 – Curtain goes up at one. The theatre feels like there’s electricity charging through it, and this time its not because of the staticky carpets at the Nash. There’s 900 people that are genuinely excited to be here. I have to keep stopping myself from grinning like a madman. Currently drinking coffee and trying to empty my head. I do want to interrogate the production but not to such an extent that I can’t enjoy the storytelling in the moment. I don’t remember the last time I was so excited to go into and auditorium. Side note: the programmes are gorgeous.

14:07 – (Millennium Interval One.) Holy crap. Ohhhhhhhh my God. I’ve never seen an actor capture an audience as quickly as Nathan Lane just did. It was instantaneous, I’m not sure how he did it, a combination of voice, characterisation and presence I presume, but it was like watching lightning strike or something. The same could be said of this whole ensemble to be fair, they can all command an audience with what looks like no effort at all. I was reminded that I live in a world where Denise Gough acts on stage which is an AMAZING WORLD TO LIVE IN. I’m fairly certain I’m watching the whole thing with a stupid grin on my face, and I’m on the front row so it’s not like they can’t see me, but I suspect the actors are a bit too busy to look at the doofus on the front row.

15:21 – (Millennium Interval Two.) I’d forgotten how act two started. The second the curtain went up I remembered… The realism or rather literalism of the production makes it tough to watch, as it should be. But God this play is funny, and then Kushner just punches you in the gut. This production seemed to be after something close to realism but that’s getting blurred. I think the carpet’ about to be pulled from under us. These actors are really good. I mean, I knew that anyway, but there’s not a single weak link. That last scene was still quite something. I’ve just got this sense of profound something in my gut. I think it might be gratitude and I want to smack myself. Thank you for not fucking this up for me, universe. For once, I’ve said that completely without sarcasm. Who knew I was capable of such things.

16:45 – (After Millennium.) I think the girl next to me made it through two bars of Moon River before bursting into tears. I was right about the carpet, it’s been well and truly pulled. Marianne Elliott can piss right off with her brilliance. This production anticipates everything, and then dodges. It’s so confident. It’s so strange to emerge from that into the light. I think I’ve also had an eyebrow burnt off.

18:39 – (Before Perestroika.) I’ve eaten, so hopefully my stomach won’t rumble for the 4hrs 10mins or whatever of Perestroika. I’m being a bit more reserved about this one. It’s certainly the more unpredictable and unwieldy of the two plays, and I’m not sure how much Kushner has rewritten. There was certainly a chunk of Millennium that was new to me, and I sort-of know Angels back to front. The energy’s surging again. Nothing in the auditorium has cooled down, no lull; the audience is still hot and ready to carry on riding the rollercoaster. I’m using a horrendous amount of metaphors and similes today.

20:34 – (Perestroika Interval One.) Lesson learnt. I need to stop underestimating this production. Every time something feels like it might get tired, it’s whisked away. At first all I could notice were the changes in the text (and there are considerable changes) but that’s stopped now. And OH MY GOD I have an understanding of the Diorama scene now. I’ve never understood it, but now I’ve seen it in performance, I get the wit and the strangeness of it. That whole second act… I wondered when it was announced why exactly they had an ensemble but now I get it. The obvious solutions are not good enough for Elliott. It’s an act of imagination, one that relies on stage magic. You basically get three different Elliott shows in one (well, two.)

22:01 – (Perestroika Interval Two.) It feels weirdly experimental, is what I’m trying to get at. A lot of these ideas are suggested in the text, but Elliott has filtered it through her own sensibility. More and more realism is being stripped away, as befits the text. I can’t believe it’s already been three hours, and six and a half in total. I’m not even pissed off by the Lyttleton seats. I could very easily watch the whole thing again immediately, although those poor actors are probably shattered.

23:22 – (Aftermath.) Was swallowing very hard by the end. Girl next to me went again. Prior’s last speech is a killer. And the roar of the audience at the curtain call… Gough and McArdle looked a bit taken aback, Garfield muttered ‘Fucking hell…’ For a play that has such a bittersweet ending, there’s a euphoria to it. I’m going to mourn for this one. What a privilege to be there. Now I need to think. And probably have a glass of wine. Or maybe just the cheap rum we’ve got in the kitchen.

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I will be writing about the production (probably to an extent that I think is interesting but everyone else will be bored witless by, because if you haven’t noticed by now that I am completely obsessed with Angels…) but I wanted to get my thoughts about the experience out there asap. I loved it. I can’t wait for everyone else to see it, because I so want to talk about it with people.

People, Places and Things: A Year-or-So in Retrospect

Theatre, being an ephemeral art form, is often lost the minute we leave the auditorium. The things we keep in our memories are images, moments, rather than a whole production stamped brand-like onto our memory. I remember the first time I ever went to the theatre; Grease at the Liverpool Empire when I was 9. I remember the band being revealed behind a screen at the end, the illusion being snapped. I remember the tank smashing through the side of the stage in War Horse, then realising it wasn’t a tank, it was two caterpillar tracks held by puppeteers – but it was still terrifying. I remember seeing Sizwe Bansi is Dead in the tiny studio space at the Liverpool Playhouse and realising I could hear the actor talk; he wasn’t shouting to the balcony, he was looking at me and I could hear him talk.

I remember the way Maxine Peake’s Hamlet turned to look at his father. I remember the way the packed house laughed at the “up towards Southport” joke in Educating Rita. I remember the roars at the end of Imogen as the Globe shook with Skepta. I remember the moth in the second scene of Unreachable on press night. I remember the last 10 minutes of Hedda Gabler, and the tomato juice. I remember the funeral oration in Roman Tragedies.

The only thing I remember all of, the only play where I can recall every scene exactly as it was, virtually every intonation, is People, Places and Things.

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As I’ve written about before, I moved to London for uni in September 2015, and the National Theatre was on my list of places to visit. I’d heard about a play in the Dorfman called ‘People, Places and Things,’ and in my naïveté, I decided I’d get tickets (it was sold out.) There was (is) this thing called Friday Rush so I thought I’d give it a go – in the last week of its run at the NT. By sheer dumb luck I ended up with cheap front row tickets to see one of the final performances, still utterly clueless as to what it was about, who was in it, and who’d written or directed it.

So, I rock up to the Nash on some random Thursday night, looking forward to it, but not knowing what it was I was going to the theatre for exactly; I think before this point I went on instinct, on a need for the liveness of it, but scratching for something underneath. I was getting there, things like Hamlet, Sizwe Bansi and Constellations had switched me on to different ideas.

And suddenly, Denise Gough is sat on a chair a couple of feet away from me, swaying slightly, eyes bulging. I now know she was Lucy playing Sarah playing Emma playing Nina, but in that first moment all I could see was a woman on the verge, someone I recognised, trying so desperately to hold it together – for everyone’s sake. There seemed to be nothing between her and the character, and nothing between the character and the audience (specifically, me.) This made it feel incredibly dangerous, like there was something at stake. The actress and character were so exposed that there was the very real possibility that something might go wrong.

And then play began to unfurl itself; the story of a woman attempting to rid herself of her sickness, her addiction. We witness her experience at rehab, the check-in and the humiliation of confession, the medical procedures, the infuriating reality of thinking yourself the smartest person in the room, and the inability to give yourself over to an ideology so removed from your understanding of the world. The play itself is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned; it manages to interweave politics and character, a critique of neo-liberalism, the way it treats perspective as a form, balancing and arguing philosophy and religion – and embodying this in Emma, a complete howl of a character.

And Gough was unforgettable. So much has been said and written about it that I sort of feel I have nothing ese to add, though I was particularly enamoured with the wit she played it with, the idea that there was a big joke at the centre of her narrative, which of course made the end so upsetting. My favourite moment, and the one that still gives me chills to think about, is Emma’s monologue at the end of the first act. “We could just go for one drink” she screamed at the audience, into the dark. She was feral. She was terrifying. When I saw it in the West End six months later, I think Gough had a cold. I distinctly remember her blowing her nose, then throwing away her tissue before she launched into this final tirade. Nothing was going to stop her from making that speech – the character or the actress. I remind myself periodically how lucky I am to have seen her play it twice.

But to call it a feat of acting seems disingenuous; it was as if there was no act. As someone who has witnessed the effects of addiction, I saw no glamour in Emma. No pretence. There was nothing attractive about a sickness that consumes your existence and can destroy every single one of your relationships. The play sought only to contextualise Emma’s behaviour, not justify it.

Jeremy Herrin’s production, with Bunny Christie’s set emphasised the clinical, the coldness and the isolation of the clinic, allowing the visceral nature of Gough’s performance to control the space (I should say the rest of the company were also excellent. The scene where the tell their stories to the group in a sort of childlike round spoke more about addiction than many full-length plays.) The immediacy wasn’t entirely to do with Gough, but most of it was. The space acted not only as Emma’s exterior landscape, but as her interior landscape. We see what she sees, the blackouts, the double vision, and the sheer bloody terror at being alone, and sick. It was scarier than any horror movie I’ve ever seen.

That penultimate scene. It’s the single most upsetting thing I’ve ever seen on a stage; Emma (which we now know isn’t her real name, only her stage one) is having the conversation with her parents that she’d practiced having in the clinic, explaining that she’s going to stay sober. Her family – her mum – are more resistant than she was hoping. Her mum is indifferent; she sees only failure in her. She tells one notably upsetting anecdote, where Emma broke her fingers while hammered, and thus she no longer plays the piano like she used to. But it’s the moment she calls Emma ‘Lucy’ that got under my skin. It’s when we realise that Emma/Sarah/Lucy is still unable to reveal herself totally. It’s when that hope we had for her when she graduated is pulled from under us.

At the National, the line got a laugh. I don’t know if it was uncomfortable laughter, or hopeless laughter, but it felt like people were laughing at Emma (And yet in the West End, the same line was met with a palpable silence.) I was incensed. How dare they. I had become so invested in the play I was angry for her, and with her – never before, and never since, had I been so with a character and their narrative. I think it’s because I understood everyone in the scene at a profound way; by being with Emma every instant, but also having a very real sense of what that family was feeling – Barbara Marten and Kevin McMonagle playing the parents with an abnormally brilliant depth for so little stage time.

It’s very hard to render me speechless. Yet I walked back along the South Bank that night in utter silence, basically trying very hard not to break out in floods of tears. I remember my flatmates were about to start watching The Omen when I got back, and so I sat through the whole film, still thinking about the play, still haunted by Emma.

I’ve still no idea what The Omen is about. I’m still haunted by Emma.

I’ve been chasing the next People, Places and Things for 18 months now, which I know is a pointless task. I’m not after another play about addiction, or even another barnstorming performance. I’m after the next play that thrills me, excites me, motivates me, and devastates me the way this did.

*

With it lingering somewhere at the back of my skull for over a year, I concluded People, Places and Things is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen on a stage because it is single most honest thing I’ve ever seen on a stage. Not to say theatre must be honest to be brilliant, but this one hit me like a punch in the gut and a lightning strike to the brain. I’ll be thinking about it forever. And I’m very glad I did the Friday Rush that week.

“Reagan’s Children:” The Politics of People in ‘Angels in America’

When I was at college I did a course that meant I had to write a 4000-word research essay, it could be about anything. I picked English as my subject or research, and having seen about 5 minutes of footage from the National Theatre 50 Years on Stage thingymajig, decided I was going to write about Angels in America. I should say that I am not currently a drama student, nor am I a student of literature. I do history, and this is the methodology I wanted to use. I got the text, read it, and to say I fell head-over-heels in love with it would be an understatement. A year later, when I’d finished writing my essay, I was still in love with it. Angels is a play that can be pulled to pieces and becomes all the richer for it.

Anyway, I really liked the topic, and I’m still fascinated by the play, particularly in anticipation of the new production at the National Theatre this year. I wanted to return to my thoughts about the politics of the play; examining the specifics of the world Tony Kushner puts on stage. I lost the draft that I submitted for my course, so this is a new essay that uses the same skeleton; I don’t remember the nuances of my original argument, even less so the specific quotes I used. This essay is certainly more informal than the original, and I felt freer to talk about the characters as if they were real people. I know they aren’t, don’t worry. Hopefully there’s no self-plagiarism.  I wanted to write this introduction – I don’t analyse every play to death like this, but then again, most plays couldn’t take it.

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You’d have to search far to find anyone willing to argue that Angels in America is not a massively significant piece of drama. Its impact on the theatrical world was huge, sweeping the American awards in the early 90s, earning Tony Kushner a Pulitzer and two Tony awards in a couple of years – but more than this, it has left a colossal imprint on American culture. People know that Angels in America exists, however that is, through the stage productions or Mike Nichols’ television adaptation for HBO. It’s hard to think of a play since then that has made such an impact, certainly not a British play.

The New York of the early 1980s was ripe for literary representation, its narcissistic impulses extrapolated into violence in Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious American Psycho, its excesses mocked in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and recent work (including Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire) has discussed the art world that was bourgeoning at the time. Even as they mock the zeitgeist, they all find something celebratory in New York, something about life. The New York of Angels in America is a place of death. Cities themselves are linked to apocalypse, abandoned by God, with hope carried in the people that populate the landscape. In other words, the biological disaster of AIDS is equated with the political catastrophe of Reaganism.

The population of Angels’ New York is specifically diverse: there is Prior, the WASP; Louis, the Kushner (gay, liberal, Jewish) stand in; Belize, the apparent stereotype that subverts expectation; Joe, the conservative but closeted; Harper, the eternal optimist; and Roy Cohn, a man with no soul left to save. Each of these characters represent something specific about Reagan’s America; a world where white heterosexual men and women behaving like them assumed themselves the true heirs to whatever power could be grabbed.

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The play opens with a eulogy. An elderly rabbi is talking about the death of a “whole kind of person,” that is specifically, Sarah Ironson, and generally, the wave of Jewish immigrants into America from Russia. Sarah Ironson is the grandmother of Louis Ironson, one of the central characters of the play, who clings to his Jewish heritage. Notably, he is also –  demographically at least – the character most like Kushner – gay, liberal and Jewish. We are introduced to him at the funeral, all seriousness, laden with grief. He’s passive, either complacent or too exhausted to try and stop Prior, his long-term boyfriend from chatting absolute shite. But his reaction to trauma, we learn, is to explode. When Prior tells him he has AIDS, Louis refuses to let go of him, before pushing him away and swearing at him. His reaction is to deny – four times he says “Fuck you,” to Prior. Immediately after, he has to go.

Leaving Prior is always a possibility for Louis, he seems to consider it from the moment he’s told about the diagnosis. It crops up several times in dialogue, with Prior – presumably catching on to the threat – telling him that such an act would be unforgivable. The emotional stakes are so high for Prior; Louis leaving him makes him completely alone. It also serves as a reminder of the reality many gay men went through, suddenly becoming carers for their partners, who were living with horrific symptoms. Kushner puts AIDS on stage in all its ugliness, allowing Louis’ actions to be contextualised, if never justified. Louis is always just on the edge, on the verge of hysteria, so when the physical trappings of AIDS are made immediate to him, it’s the final straw. But we are never in any doubt of the sheer, shameless audacity of Louis leaving Prior to “save [my]self.”

On top of all this, he’s a flirt. Politics is a barb and sex is a weapon, as we learn in his first encounter with Joe, in a bathroom at their office. Even as he is in visible distress over Prior, Louis cannot help but flirt with Joe, teasing him about “Reaganite heartless macho asshole lawyers.” When Joe pulls him up on this, Louis can’t help but joke. “[What’s unfair?] Heartless? Macho? Reaganite? Lawyer?” He cares very deeply about politics, or the illusion of politics; after all, he can only love “big ideas.” The sense is that Louis cares, but because he can hold these things at arm’s length, he is somewhat removed, detached, and therefore insensitive to the actual human cost of the things he is joking about.

The centrepiece of the third act of Millennium Approaches is the conversation between Louis and Belize on the nature of democracy. It is fascinating politically, but more than that, it unravels Louis’ entire character. By this point, he has left Prior, and is determined to defend his position – on absolutely everything. He cannot shut up. He talks for pages on the nature of democracy in America, making a statement “Why has democracy succeeded in America?” and then immediately qualifying it, “I mean comparatively…” He proceeds to rally against liberalism, and tolerance because it is politics that divides. He confuses and contradicts himself. He is desperate, and panicking. Determined to play the victim, he has the nerve to make a racist claim to Belie, then says “You hate me because I’m a Jew.” Simultaneously, he seeks Belize’s approval, “race here is a political question, right?” In this bit of Shavian social theorising, Kushner can examine both the state of liberal politics in America – subscribers to which were the bulk of his audience – and give Louis’ character enough depth that his character could appear only in this seen and still be fully fleshed out. You could write a thesis on this scene alone.

Louis is self-destructive, and he claims he hates himself, but to suggest this is simply an act of self-loathing is to underestimate the character. He cannot be described as a stereotypical, emasculated, self-hating Jew. He can clearly ‘pass’ as straight with his family, acts “butch.” Moreover he has a sexual confidence when he is with Joe that suggests he doesn’t suffer from a lack of self-confidence. His self destructive acts, most vividly in the scene where he solicits a stranger in Central Park for sex, and encourages him to “infect [him].” It’s twisted, and abject. Sex in Angels is largely unsatisfying and unromantic, this being the first instance. Interestingly, the only scene where you get the impression anyone is actually enjoying the sex is also with Louis, in his first scene with Joe in Perestroika. Additionally, the man Louis solicits in Central Park is played by the same actor that plays Prior, suggesting that what Louis is largely guilty of is guilt itself. He commits an act which he recognises crosses a line, but does it anyway, just so he can a sensation comparable to Prior. Louis wants to suffer; he wants a reason to whinge.

The irony is, Louis has reason to whinge. All around him, friends are dying; he himself is a gay man in the middle of an era not short of stigma. But rather than take up the fight for his friends, he makes it about him. Ultimately, Louis becomes Reaganistic selfishness and liberal hypocrisy personified. Everything has to be about him. It is only when he starts to shift, to become aware that it is not in fact about him, that he regains his dignity. This occurs largely when he confronts Joe, having finally learnt of his links to Roy Cohn. He has gone through Joe’s cases, and throws particularly despicable ones back in his face, including one where a gay man was cheated of his army pension. He incenses Joe to such an extent that he is left bloodied and bruised on the ground, but even then, it is not clear if he does it to be forgiven by Prior, or if he is being sincere. Either way, he cannot go back to Prior, but is nevertheless accepted into the family of the Epilogue. He is unresolved, implicitly discontent. It is arguably this that gives tension to the ending; Louis is never going to stop.

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Harper Pitt is always slightly otherworldly. She is the first to invoke the apocalypse, speaking specifically of the destruction of the ozone layer; she sees the whole world, “Everywhere, things are collapsing,” she says in her first scene. She recognises there is no hope in reality, and as such is perfectly content to live in an illusion, because her reality consists of popping Valium and being frightened and alone. She has no desire for change, because her idea of change means the world tipping over the edge of the precipice into apocalypse. She is desperately sad.

The play’s attitudes towards gender are fascinating. Kushner is clearly trying to shift the attitudes of American theatre away from silencing women and forcing them into the background; Harper is crucial to the plot, her hallucinations being equally crucial to the larger ideas and philosophical debates of the play, and they privilege her position in regards to the protagonist. She unquestionably makes her own choices and is never without agency. Nevertheless, it does replicate traditional structures: Harper is pathologized, she is hysterical in the literal sense of the word. She is what Barbara Creed might describe as a ‘monstrous womb,’ she talks about giving birth to a pill instead of a baby. She is, in all senses, a complete contradiction. The feminine is repeatedly other-ed in Angels in America; the men are gay, the women are there largely because of their association with men. But most obviously this is the case with the Angel of America herself. If the Angels are female – and Kushner uses female pronouns throughout, despite describing them as “hermaphroditally equipped” – then femininity is associated with stasis, and men are the agents of progress, even as it is the male body that is destroyed by AIDS.

She never wishes Joe, her husband, pain, but she is terrified by him. We learn that she has had a miscarriage, and was probably abused as a child. No wonder then, that she takes refuge in imagination, where she can claim the space as her own, with her imaginary friend Mr Lies. When Joe wants to leave for Washington, Harper is horrified, because she is “happy enough,” in New York. We come to realise that Harper and Joe’s marriage is built on doubt, possibly due to their religion; their faith is in something external, not in each other, because if it was it would be exposed as a lie. She is always on “the very threshold of realisation.” Her last appearance in Millennium is her wandering an imaginary Antarctica, transported to the site of impending apocalypse, in the glare of the UV caused by the hole in the ozone layer.

When in Millennium she drifted, in Perestroika she rages. Harper was always impulsive but when we are reintroduced to her in Perestroika, she is feral. Her fantasies have gone too far and “tore a big old hole in the sky,” she is left abandoned by Joe and his mother, Hannah, is left to pick up the pieces. Hannah tries to communicate to Harper that life is disappointing, but Harper either chooses not to or is incapable of listening. Is she fundamentally an optimist? She can cross space and time (P.3.1) and reality and imagination, why would she ever choose a disappointing reality? She is made cynical by the abandonment, in the diorama scene (P.3.3) she is described as a “flawed” and “inferior” Mormon. Reality continues to fracture, Louis wanders in and interacts with a mannequin who is also Joe, and both things are real and artifice simultaneously. But as the scene collapses in on itself – incidentally, I’ve read it god knows how many times and I still don’t understand the scene totally – she chooses imagination again, and she steps into the diorama, into the artifice.

“Flood’s not the answer,” she claims, on the promenade in a dress as a storm comes in “Fire’s the answer. The Great and Terrible Day. At last.” She is desperate for the end, perhaps because it means her vision will stop, she will stop see reality as bleak and imagination as horror. But she comes to recognise that devastation is necessary for migration, for progress, for change. At the end of the play, having been ruined by Joe and then regained herself, she decides to leave him. The very last thing she does is to hurt him, physically with a slap, then by handing him a Valium. Then she walks out.

Her last speech, which ends the play proper, is on a night flight to San Francisco. We cannot trust that it is real, but we hope so. She talks of “souls rising, from the earth far below… and they floated up like skydivers… the souls of these departed joined hands… and formed a web, a great net of souls” The dead, the disenfranchised repair the threadbare ozone layer, sealing the world off from harm, forming a protective layer. “Nothing’s lost forever… At least I think that’s so.” She has doubt. In other words, nothing is absolutes – reality/imagination – she is at peace with doubt, but has a capacity for optimism. She, like Prior, gives more life – to herself.

*

Kushner has spoken about how E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime allowed him to force history and fiction together; they do not have to exist separately, nor does history have to serve only as backdrop. Indeed, history is often transformed through literature, as figures are appropriated for larger philosophical, theological ideas – most prominently through Shakespeare, for example. In Angels, this idea manifests itself most successfully, and most horrifyingly, in the characterisation of Roy Cohn. By portraying Cohn in the way he does, Kushner makes the claim that the gay and PWA (People With AIDS) community was non-homogenous, in a way that an earlier AIDS play like The Normal Heart did/had to. It’s also a way to reclaim Cohn – to ‘pinklist’ him, if you will – from the liberal homophobia of his obituaries. When he died, his sexual liaisons were equated with his political depravity (he was Donald Trump’s mentor for God’s sake.) In the play, Cohn is demonised because he does awful things, not because he is a closeted gay man.

We are introduced to him in a largely comedic scene; he is rapidly punching buttons on his phone, talking to clients, secretaries, trying to talk to Joe in person. He is made ridiculous, but always a physical threat. He loves chaos, because he thinks he can control and thrive in it. He makes a comment on the phone “No you wouldn’t like La Cage, trust me, I know.” Only to call it almost immediately after “Fabulous. Best thing on Broadway. Maybe ever.” It’s funny. But it gets at the conflict within Cohn; the need to pretend, but also the seeking of companionship. He’s telling Joe because he’s already sussed, two minutes into their meeting, that Joe is interested in him. The whole charade with the phone acts as a ploy for Roy to discover if Joe has a wife or not.

Everything is about power for Roy. Even in a doctor’s office, being given life-changing news he has to play at power. He is vulnerable, and clearly terrified, and turns the tables, making a game out of it. He wants the doctor to say that he’s gay, but threatens to destroy him utterly if he dares do it. He makes threats, and there should be no doubt that means them. Cohn isn’t gay, he says, because he has “clout.” And homosexuals “have zero clout.” Labels don’t have anything to do with sexuality, he suggests, they are only to do with your standing on the ladder of power. “What I am is defined entirely by who I am.” He is Roy Cohn, and therefore he is Roy Cohn. In a later scene, he insists that nothing should be allowed to stand in a person’s way. It would be empowering if he wasn’t so despicable.

Roy is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he had executed alongside her husband. We learn that executing her is his proudest achievement because he “fucking hates traitors.” By doing so, he “forced [his] way into history,” but as Ethel warns him, “history is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.” Constructed history means nothing if there’s a big gaping lie at the middle of it. The only thing scarier to Roy than dying, is dying without power – essentially, dying without his reputation intact. Because his power relies on the subjugation of others, he lashes out, calling Belize a “dim black mother…” “Watch. Yourself.” Belize can hold his own, but Roy is increasingly repellent. Racists, nonetheless are too rigid for his tastes, but he would still prefer a WASP doctor.

The second part of Angels is called Perestroika; it translates as restructuring. The old politics f the cold war is thawing, and Roy’s world I collapsing with it. When he is informed in his hospital that his power may be slipping, that he may be disbarred, he cannot comprehend it. He still expects/assumes authority even as the person at the other end of the phone line us telling him his position is failing. Roy refuses to give Belize a bottle of AZT pills for Prior, which escalates into him racially abusing Belize, which subsequently turns into both throwing the worst expletives at each other. Only then does Roy permit Belize to take a bottle. “That’s America,” he says “It’s just no country for the infirm.”

As he nears death, his visions become more vivid. He sings about John Brown, the father of American terrorism to all intents and purposes. He is disbarred moments before he dies, the last of his power slipping from his grasp as his health finally fails him. But even then, he can’t resist one final moment of relish, feigning his death before joking about it in a truly postmodern sense. He dies instantly afterwards, pressing an imaginary hold button. “Better he had never lived at all” says Ethel. But forgiveness is needed for progress, Kushner suggests, and Ethel and Louis together say the Kaddish over Roy’s body, restoring him to his culture, to humanity. His is forgiven, but the distinctly non-Aramaic addition to the end “you sonofabitch” suggests that forgetting is not on the agenda.

*

Prior Walter is certainly the protagonist of the play; he is the man we witness going through obstacles and emerging at the end. But he is no Hamlet – he’s funnier, for a start, and he does not exist in isolation. He’s a prophet, but a reluctant one. Although I had pulled this play to pieces before, it’s been a while, and I’d forgotten how much Prior – and particularly his humour – ground the play. In many ways, Angels is a play about things that happen to Prior, as opposed to things brought on by his decisions. He’s sort of insoluble, and I imagine a bitch to play. He doesn’t shut up, for starters.

We are introduced to him at the funeral of Louis’ grandmother. He reeks of sarcasm. Everything seems a joke, and it is only when he reveals the first lesion on his arm that the tone plunges into tragedy. Humour is his way of coping, by laughing about the biology, in contrast to Louis’ humour, which removes him from the situation. AIDS grants him these extraordinary visions, including one where he is in drag and is visited by Harper. She tells him “in my church we don’t believe in homosexuals.” He responds “in my church we don’t believe in Mormons.” He has an extraordinary wit, and going hand in hand with that is his absolute conviction in his beliefs. He doesn’t spout political speeches in the way Louis does, but he does believe in compassion, and in community. It is why his abandonment is so traumatic.

There is a sense of the weight of history about him, referenced by his name ‘Prior,’ always just before something else. The ghosts of his ancestors appear to him in act three of Millennium, linking together the plagues of the 13th, 17th and 20th centuries. History is calling to prepare the way… for what? The capital-M Millennium? Prior I recites part of the Kaddish to him, suggesting that yes, Prior is connected to a WASP tradition dating back to the Norman Conquest but he is far more of an amalgamation; he references all sorts of politics, religion and popular culture – from Streetcar to Shirley Booth and Spielberg to Maria Ouspenskaya.

When he first hears the voice, it connects with him on a primal, sexual level. When the angel appears to him at the end of Millennium, and when we see the aftermath in Perestroika, we realise that Prior is connected to the Angel in many senses – they are each part of the other. The Angel leaves him with hope – and an orgasm.

With Prior, we see the biology of AIDS. We see the effects; the blood, the shit, the vomit. It is never, not for a second, played for sentiment. Prior is toxic, and is terrified at the prospect of never being touched. But more importantly is that we see Prior living with AIDS. He (SPOILER ALERT) doesn’t die, he learns to want to live. Perestroika concentrates on him learning to do this. At the start, he is somewhat embittered. He is more serious, dresses in dark robes. His encounter with the Angel has changed him – he’s fucking furious at the world: “It’s 1986 and there’s a plague.” He is unforgiving towards Louis: “fuck you you little shitbag,” and he’s immune to sentiment. Louis’ ‘bruises on the inside’ mean nothing to him, because in the end, Prior is the only one without a true carer. He wants Louis to bleed, because nothing emotional comes close to the biological and physical devastation of AIDS. His bravery is held in sharp contrast to Roy’s cynicism.

He is the one to wrestle with the Angel – stasis itself, and gains access to heaven. When he confronts the Angels, he realises that yes, life can be horror, but we are addicted. He wants More Life – and how dare God leave mankind to its fate. How dare he leave. He rejects the prophecy. Mankind must migrate, he argues. Change is painful, but necessary.

In the epilogue, Angels establishes itself more firmly as a history play by jumping forward five years to 1991. Prior has been living with AIDS for five years. His last speech, directed to the audience, is an extension of political imagination. “We will be citizens” he says. It is an act of transgression. A threat, even. Then he blesses us. The play begins with a funeral and ends with “more life.” Prior’s life.

*

Belize is the link. He connects all the characters, and acts often as their conscience. But as a character himself, he is something of an enigma. Even his name is not his – and old drag name that stuck, according to Kushner’s notes. His real name, Norman Ariaga, is never invoked. He has no past, except that with Prior, barely any present, and no family. He is also the most transgressive; gay, black, effeminate. And, he is the most stable. He acts as the play’s moral centre, his beliefs and statements often going unquestioned as truths. If he was a real person, he would be one of probably three genuinely ‘good’ people in the play. It may be hidden by wit and sass, but Belize has a heart that would beat for the world if it could.

We don’t meet him until the second act of Millennium, when he swans into Prior’s hospital room. He immediately starts to affectionately insult Prior, it is clear their relationship is strong. Prior wants Louis, and Belize is reassuring. He is clearly very loyal, when he says “I will be here for you,” you believe him. Because for Belize, politics is human relationships. It’s not about huge ideas and concepts, warring philosophies and great debates, it’s about how people treat each other.

This is most evident in the conversation he has with Louis in the café. Louis, crippled with guilt, is talking non-stop. Belize sits and lets him unravel. He gives no approval, he gives no reassurance – in fact, he’s not given a chance to say anything at all. Kushner uses Belize to expose Louis as a complete hypocrite, as he waxes lyrical about democracy and the lack of monoliths in America. Belize sits there, unimpressed. He’s not willing to argue, not because he is incapable, but because he thinks Louis is a bit pathetic. He’s not even moved to argue when Louis makes racist claims, he simply wants to go. The only time he becomes engaged is when Louis accuses him of anti-Semitism. “Are you deliberately transforming yourself into an arrogant sexual-political Stalinist-slash-racist flag waving thug for my benefit?” He is unimpressed by posturing with discourse, particularly when it is used to cover guilt, or genuine emotion. Unlike Louis, Belize has read Democracy in America. He knows what he’s on about – he could destroy Louis if he wanted to, but he recognises that’s what Louis wants. To Belize, politics is simple and life is hard. The way Louis and Belize bicker through the epilogue suggest they will go on forever. Ideas never stay still for long.

He is also Roy Cohn’s nurse, caregiver to a man diametrically opposed to him in every demographic imaginable. When Belize describes heaven to him, Belize describes it as a city like San Francisco. It’s bleak, he juxtaposes trash with jewels: “race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.” Roy is so repelled by the image that he confuses it for hell. They are so completely different, Belize appears to hate Roy, and the feeling seems to be mutual. But after Roy’s death, he is the one who encourages Louis to say the Kaddish “to thank him for the pills” they are taking for Prior. “A queen can forgive her vanquished foe,” he says. He recognises that forgiveness is necessary for progress from the beginning. “Louis, I’d even pray for you.”  He needs no realisation. He offers no explanation. It is really that simple.

Belize is never racialized within the play in the same way as Louis, for example. Blackness is by no means his defining characteristic, in a way Louis’ Jewishness could be described as his defining characteristic. But he is clearly acutely aware of the way race divides in America. Louis can afford to love America, because it’s a place of ideas. Belize has to hate America, because when its politics translate into interpersonal relations, he is marginalised. He finally talks at length towards the end of Perestroika. “I hate this country… The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to aa note so high nobody can reach it… Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.” It’s a moment of what appears to be striking – if entirely justified – cynicism, except it is followed by him saying “Everybody’s got to love something.” Belize is a man who’s heart is breaking for the whole world – not because of the failure of concept, or theory, but because of the damage that it causes actual human beings.

*

Kushner believes the purpose of theatre to be to teach critical consciousness. This may be true, and it cannot be said that any of the characters in the play are simple, or archetypes. They are complex figures that complicate a simple world-view, or understanding of the contemporary political landscape.

If drama is fundamentally about people, and the way people interact, then politics is present, whether in an explicit capacity of not. Kushner puts the people that believed themselves entitled to power on stage next to those who are utterly without power, plays them off each other, and allows (for the most part) the politics to be expressed in domestic conversation. His politics may be drawn from Brecht and Marx, but his understanding of the playwrighting craft puts him in the lineage of O’Neill and Williams. People are crafted before politics.

The problem is, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s theology I haven’t even touched upon. I’ve left out the Mormons almost entirely. There are vast swathes of this play that are still a mystery to me, and are likely to remain so. Which is why it is so important and impressive that at the heart of this play are people, not ideas, but people. I don’t, and can’t, even think of them as characters any more.

 

Notes

My edition of Angels in America is the combined edition of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, published by Nick Hern Books in London on 12th April 2007.

There’s a whole load of literature and media on Angels in America and I used a lot of it:

‘Tony Kushner with Michael Friedman’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4H7nsJwnRE [accessed 2/4/17]

The dramaturgy blog for ABBEDAM’s 2013 production of Angels in America by Tony Kushner, http://abbedamangels.tumblr.com/ [accessed 16/3/17]

Andrea Bernstein’s 1995 interview with Tony Kushner, http://www.motherjones.com/media/1995/07/tony-kushner [accessed 16/3/17]

Essays on Kushner’s Angels,’ Per Brask (ed.) Winnipeg, Blizzard Publishing, 1995

‘The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope,’ James Fisher, London, Routledge, 2002

‘Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America,’ Deborah R. Geis and Stephen F Kruger (eds,) Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1997

… amongst many others that I have absorbed via diffusion but haven’t quoted specifically.

Fairy String, Terrorists and Woollen Phalluses: Making Theatre for Kids

Uncharacteristically, most of the theatre I’ve seen thus far this year has been developed at least in part for a family audience. Seeing the three productions – The Little Matchgirl, Us/Them and Peter Pan – in quick succession exposed different ways of approaching theatre that will be attended by kids, and how drastic the differences and results can be. I’m not entirely convinced one approach is better than another, and I am in favour of a broad church when it comes to theatre, but I wanted to examine why these productions existed in the way they did.

That was an appalling introduction, so I’ll just get to it.

*

Emma Rice’s production of The Little Matchgirl (and Other Happier Tales) was the reason for my first trip to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is beautiful to look at and an absolute bitch to watch a play in. There’s a reason they don’t build theatres like that anymore. Production and venue become inseparable, as is perhaps inevitable in both of The Globe’s auditoria.

There was a little girl sat directly opposite me in the balcony. And I mean little. 5 years old, perhaps. I’m a bit of a bitch so obviously my first thought was “Christ I hope the little terror keeps her mouth shut.” But as the candelabra flew up15941230_10155000215140774_2449895422132760509_n to the rafters in the opening scene, she couldn’t help but go “Wow.” And she said virtually nothing for the rest of the show.

I found it really interesting that it was the candelabra’s that elicited that response. The mechanics of theatre, as opposed to the storytelling. She was enthralled by that.  And that really is what The Little Matchgirl does, it enchants its audience with the very act of theatre, making reality out of something that is evidently not. The Matchgirl herself is a puppet (beautiful work by Lydie Wright, the puppet designer, and Edie Edmundson, the puppeteer,) as is Thumbelina and an assortment of animals. The line between actor and object vanishes, something you buy into immediately. Actors change their clothes, accents, characters almost instantaneously (although was it a scouse accent I detected as the scrim is stolen from the stage? Because that’s a whole other piece to write.) The fluidity of the space matched by the fluidity of personhood.

The Little Matchgirl’s approach then, is enchantment; drawing the audience into a space in which realism is impossible, moving between fairy tales, exposing the mechanics of deception and encouraging our participation. Even the nudity referenced in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ section is represented with a flesh coloured woollen onesie thing, complete with phallus. Christ, I’m writing about woollen phalluses. But what I’m still considering is whether this approach to theatre-making is counterproductive. As likeable as the show was, it remains, still about the act of theatre. The act of seduction. It may well be enthralling and enchanting in the space, but does it stick in the memory with the power of clear and powerful storytelling?

*

While a story like The Little Matchgirl hardly makes for easy viewing, it remains fundamentally a fairy tale. Us/Them at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium takes a radically different story to appropriate for the theatre. The Beslan school siege, no less. The hostage taking of over 1100 and murder of almost 400 does not superficially seem like material ‘appropriate’ (don’t worry, I shuddered while typing that) for a younger audience. The work has been pitched at children aged 12+, but in her programme notes, Carly Wijs mentions making the piece for “audiences that include children,” which conjures images, at least to me, of a younger audience.

The story is certainly from a child’s perspective, with the accompanying wild shifts from complete truthfulness to total fantasy. The piece works because duality is the spine; the text is given as much weight as the movement, the literal is equal to the interpretation. It also helps enormously that the two performers – Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven – are excellent, with incredibly accurate characterisations of children trapped in the siege. More striking is their absolute focus and specificity in the act of performance – how they remember which string goes where on Stef Stessel’s functional set I have no idea. They talk on top of each other, they move on top of each, in each other’s way. They smudge the chalk drawing of the school they spend the play’s opening minutes completing as the wrestle amicably, for the attention of the audience and for their version of the story’s prominence – if they’re not the same thing.

It’s perspective altering stuff for even seasoned theatregoers, which makes the combination of form, content and audience all the more interesting. But I’d suggest it is possible more interested in provoking than in challenging. After all, there’s only so much you can do in an hour, and the piece feels more like a punch in the gut as opposed to a slow flaying. It acts as a conversation starter, a way to initiate discussion with children. The cost of this, is that the emotional impact is diminished from its potential for an adult audience. And I have to say, even for a mid-week matinee the audience looked considerably older than I thought it would. So can the objective of children’s theatre to merely spark interest? And must emotional satisfaction for an older audience suffer as a result?

*

Sally Cookson’s production of Peter Pan in the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium is the most epic of the three productions. Epic in size, epic in scope, epic in story. It’s a well-known property, somewhat inverted, on the biggest stage in London. It is, in essence, the perfect Christmas show. But Cookson is not using J.M. Barrie’s text, she is using a text devised in rehearsals with her cast, and therefore suffers from a problem seemingly inherent to devised theatre: what I’m sure was exciting to rehearse becomes uninteresting in front of an audience. Thankfully, this is largely confined to the Darling children’s antics in the first half hour or so, and upon arrival in Neverland things liven up.

Cookson’s production makes the play an act of imagination; actors fly due to ‘fairy string,’ children are clearly played by adults, the crocodile looks like an assortment of corrugated metal bins. Like the others, realism is far from the intention here. The set is a colourful, peter_and_wendy_flyruined brick wall, paint splattered across the floor; whatever darkness lies in this story, and there is a lot, is being made child-friendly. The weird Freudian stuff under the surface of Peter Pan is largely ignored – although I could talk about Captain Hook as the castrating female for ages – and the emphasis is shifted onto the wonder of Neverland, the spectacle of it; much more in the guise of pantomime than of drama. It is much more in the vein of Barrie’s play for children than his novel for adults. Music is also in the mix, with Anna Francolini’s Captain Hook a sort of rock goddess next to Madeleine Worrall’s androgynous Wendy.

But when the physical spectacle i.e. the set doesn’t fill the stage – and the Olivier is a very big stage to fill – it is left to the text to fill in the blanks, and the text simply isn’t strong enough. So what then? Lighting is used to great effect, sound heightens specific moments successfully, but the production is not intimate enough to be charmed by the mechanics, nor physically massive enough to be seduced by the spectacle. It becomes an actor’s play; one where the audience is to be engaged ultimately by the live presence on stage. It is in this way, the most traditional approach to theatre-making. It gives the realm of the theatre back to the actor – and it is in the performances of Paul Hilton as Peter Pan, Worrall as Wendy and Francolini as Hook that keeps the thing going. So what are kids enthralled by in Peter Pan, the characters? Is it really that simple? Then again, the Olivier audience leapt to its feet at the end of the performance I saw, so what do I know.

*

It seems to me that the thread that links these pieces, all of which conceived at least in part for consumption by younger audiences, is they all expose theatre for what it is; artifice made in the moment. They employ different methods, using space or actors or text. They all demand the participation of the audience. Naturalism seems out of bounds for children’s theatre; imagination is demanded, not an added bonus. For whatever reason, this approach – which seems to me infinitely more theatrical – is abandoned in much of the other theatre being produced. Naturalism becomes the default, somehow (in some spheres) thought of as being more intelligent.

Simultaneously, we are asking more from children, but restricting the content, or even when the content is challenging, its effect is tempered, restricting its emotional capability. Fundamentally, we’re still terrified of scaring kids.

Top Theatre of 2016: A Waffling of Riches

2016 was my first full year of living in London so took full advantage and saw a SHITLOAD of theatre. At least by my standards. I’m fairly certain I saw more theatre in 2016 than I did in my whole pre-2016 life. Talk about overcompensation.

ANYWAY. I saw a lot of great theatre. I saw some duds (that shalt not be mentioned) but the standard’s been pretty high – or maybe the novelty of seeing London theatre so regularly has yet to wear off. But I don’t think that’s it.

I remember rocking up to the south bank on a May evening to go to the Globe for the first time; it was the very first performance of Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t know the play, or the concept and was knocked for 6. Not only did it totally nullify any ‘Shakespeare-should-always-be-spoken-in-RP’ argument that remains, it totally transformed the text into something that spoke to 1589 (or whatever), 1916 and 2016. I loved it. Then – about three months after everyone else – I saw Emma Rice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and saw wonderful, glorious anarchy reign in a theatre that will soon be returned to museum status. And of course then there was Imogen; Shakespeare and Skepta. And THAT JIG. Fecking brilliant. Utterly astonishing.

This year was something of a year of Icke for me, starting with the sickeningly brilliant Uncle Vanya, which has sort of ruined Chekhov for me. I don’t want to see it done any other way. I didn’t know the play, and I sat catching flies for most of the third act in total awe of the play and the production. There was proper fear in it. Then there was the wonderfully slick (apart from when the set broke) The Red Barn which yes felt a little short on substance but when style is THAT GOOD I sort of don’t care. And anyway, it was compensated by the very substantial Mary Stuart, which I wrote about here:

The National was pretty much guaranteed to give you quality from the off this year, from the euphoric As You Like It in the Olivier, to the stomach-twisting, forensic Cleansed in the Dorfman. Les Blancs took me totally by surprise, having booked an entry pass ticket on a complete whim for that evening’s performance. Danny Sapani was excellent, and Sian Phillips was haunting. There was the one night only reading of Stuff Happens, that was probably more effective as politics than theatre, but that connected as powerfully with an audience as anything I’ve seen this year. The Young Chekhov trilogy was probably more than the sum of its parts, but achieved a genuine cathartic response from its audience in a way I’ve rarely experienced. And THEN they top it all off with Amadeus, which had my friend audibly sobbing. Lucian Msamati has total control over the character, the stage, the audience; in essence, he has everything that makes a great. And who knew that play was one of the greats of the 20th century.

I don’t remember a time I cried with laughter at the theatre before or after Unreachable at the Royal Court. I was there press night, when the moth gatecrashed the second scene. I WEPT. Anyone who claims comedy can’t be as substantial as drama needs to button it because it was one of the most satisfying evenings I spent in the theatre this year.

For me though, the play of the year was Oil. Unashamedly ambitious, big, broad, chaotic, messy; all my favourite things. Examining oil from appropriation to extinction, and simultaneously exploring the complexities of a mother-daughter relationships across a 150ish year period. And I almost got taken out by a flying log 15 seconds in.

The Donmar’s Shakespeare Trilogy, revived at King’s Cross was another surprise. I’m sensing a theme. I was really not in the mood for a day of Shakespeare when I turned up to a plastic shed in King’s Cross at 11 in the morning. By the time I emerged from Julius Caesar I was shaking. Totally thrilling, matched by the soaring Henry IV (Harriet Walter plays the flute????) and then a Tempest that is probably less successful as a standalone, but that was almost unbearably moving as a conclusion to the trilogy. And I saw it for free through the Donmar’s Young+Free scheme, so kudos to the Donmar for walking the walk on accessibility.

So there we go, my poorly formulated, hastily written top theatre of 2016.

Other moments worth a quick mention: Tara Fitzgerald’s offstage laugh in Macbeth at the Globe, Linda Bassett’s terrible rage in Escaped Alone at the Royal Court, Elizabeth Debicki’s subtle bewilderment at the set malfunctioning in The Red Barn at the National and the end of Les Blancs at the National. Properly brilliant.

See y’all in 2017.

Hello(s)

So.

I did reviewy things for the theatre before, when I saw a lot of musicals, then gave it up because I didn’t like the whole rank-it-on-a-scale thing. Also I started to really not like musicals.

Then I discovered that’s not really criticism. But this blog isn’t likely to be that either.

Basically, I just wanted somewhere to write my thoughts about plays down, to save my poor housemates’ sanity. Because I can’t half talk.

If you’re interested, my name’s Harry. I’m a history student. I’ve lived in London since September 2015 so I feel like I’m perpetually playing catch-up. I also have a tendency to use too many commas, so feel free to shout at me in the comments.

I can’t promise regularity, but believe me, when I have thoughts on a play, i have THOUGHTS.

I might write some things about Mary Stuart first, or maybe do a Top-Theatre-of-the-Year thing. Eh. Who knows.

Right. Think that’s it.

Ta-ra.