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FringeReview UK 2017

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

National Theatre, London

Genre: Comedic, Contemporary, Drama, International, LGBT Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Marianne Elliott’s ingenuity is as breath-taking as the whirligig of time bringing in Ian McNeil’s set. It’s a bricolage of panels and dissolves of interiors like Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks streaked with acid neon. Paul Constable’s lighting strips darkness away just where it needs to, to the beat of Adrian Sutton’s droll pastiche of John Williams scores.


In the twenty-four years since Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was last at the NT, its subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has been put into proof – not least on this nation’s fiftieth anniversary of the part-decriminalisation of homosexuality; a word itself now arcane to most ears.


Otherwise the contemplation that a two-part seven-and-a-half hour epic sprawled in glorious nebulae could be the smash hit redeeming more contained, even more disciplined plays would seem a risk. But from the 2013 fiftieth of the National where it featured, there’s been an expectant buzz. These miraculously picaresque fragments own an agency beyond reasonable bounds. Not least because recent events show just how fragile everything being fought over in the past fifty years is when degraded with goings-on in Washington, a city likened at one point by Louise Gough’s terrified Harper to ‘a huge white cemetery’ when her husband’s posted there.


Marianne Elliott’s ingenuity in making a centripetal force of this whirling-out of scenes is as breathless as the whirligig bringing in Ian McNeil’s set. It’s a bricolage of panels and dissolves of interiors like Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks and hotel interiors, streaked with acid neon. It does indeed spiral. Paul Constable’s lighting strips darkness away just where it needs to; the effect’s febrile, precisely hallucinated, softening to paradoxical naturalism any time Nathan Lane’s monster Roy Cohn looms. That’s of course nothing to what happens with beating angel wings and Part Two. Sibelius remarked of his second symphony, ‘it’s as if God pulled some mosaics from heaven’s floor and flung them down saying make something of that.’ That’s what Elliott does, to the beat of Adrian Sutton’s droll pastiche of John Williams scores.


Here, in the more concise Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, there’s less fantasia and more national themes. Louis it transpires is the grandson of the woman on whom Susan Brown in her first incarnation as Rabbi is officiating over. Several times you wonder if such a scene is necessary but Elliott’s way with the dissolve means you absorb it rapidly as the next scene emerges.


James McArdle’s watchable compulsively querulous Louis, loves WASP Andrew Garfield’s Prior Walter with his Bayeux Tapestry-connected family, now identifying ‘the wine dark kiss of death… I’m a lesionnaire, my troubles are lesion.’ Louis can’t take this, and his flight puts mutual friend transvestite Belize Nathan Stewart-Jarrett firmly into wise-cracking helper. ‘It doesn’t help you calling the cat Sheba’ – the ‘come back little Sheba’ quote helpfully supplied. Stewart-Jarrett’s a magnificent king of cats himself fleshing out what might seem a foil to Louis’ shrouded prejudices. ‘Respect the delicate ecology of your delusions.’ Otherwise elements of stereotyping just peep here. Louis given Kushner’s political speeches can’t but be flawed to make them paradoxically palatable.


Louis is less cool than cats, he’s hyperventilating with guilt and the antimonies of WASPy dignity and a gamut of Meet the Ancestors from Garfield’s imagination contrasts with the way McArdle’s shivering self-reproach meets the other theme.


Cue Russell Tovey’s national theme. It’s just become a lot more national: the Republican and Mormon Joseph Pitt suppressed gay married to pill-popping emotionally, sexually starved Harper (Denise Gough) and working for Lane’s Cohn. Joseph McCarthy’s Number Two was uncannily abandoned by real-life protégé Donald J Trump when his AIDS was diagnosed. Kushner must relish how history’s emulated him. Here even the two names sound cut from the same sonic cloth.


It’s where Angels works best too, in close-focus naturalism. Lane bulks out explosive takes on Cohn’s outsize personality switching phones in mid-air and crashing hard on his hapless protégé. Not to mention when Cohn’s particularly ill a tryst with Brown’s executed spy Ethel Rosenberg whom he sent to the electric chair by suborning the judge (she was scheduled for a life term). His homo-erotically-charged father-son love for Pitt, if that’s what it is, is based round the need to have him lie for him. It’s the stand-out performance alongside the very different Garfield and McArdle.


Pitt’s very different too, in Tovey’s numbed portrayal sensitive to his own distress, even if he can’t make his mother even admit to his sexuality, a superb instance of denial via accusation of drink. This, one of Susan Brown’s roles, her earthbound ones contrasting Amanda Lawrence’s: we find Lawrence by contrast increasingly airborne.


Pitt’s wife Harper is the most frustrating character, promising so much we hope more from her in Part 2. She connects so rapidly to fantasia for one thing. The greatest scene’s of her and Tovey, Garfield and McArdle cross-accusing each other when Gough breaks through and touches the reality of Garfield, hose character she meets when hallucinated.


It’s Gough’s Harper that speaks rapt poetry, of a Tennessee Williams kind. ‘Imagine beautiful systems dying Gough’ character unconsciously takes the macrocosmic parallels to AIDS all the way to the stars, adding so we don’t miss it ‘the dead are talking back to me’. Gough relishes her thin strands of humour, giving birth to a pill with its whole new take on pill-popping.


Elsewhere this textually reverent production portrays amplifying scenes almost to prove two women can be alone on it, Susan Brown’s Mormon Hannah Pitt selling her house to move to her troubled son’s New York (just as he contemplates Washington) bounces of Amanda Lawrence as real estate agent and a homeless woman.


‘Verbosities we are heir to.’ The great American – and gay – poet Hart Crane summarised what he referred to as ‘summing up the universe in one gobbet’ and Kushner undeniably shoehorns as much polemic into Louis as he can, guying him with cowardice to refract the preaching a little. The second half with Prior Walter’s plague-dead ancestors is livelier – AIDS comes third, after 1348 and 1665 these very different forebears suggests.


Their return however isn’t as fresh a device; in its repetitiveness it recalls the several meetings of Cohn and Pitt negotiating over whether he’ll go to Washington, which gets Chekhovian without the irony. Moscow was where Rosenberg was bound, after all. With Kushner quite close by, it might have been difficult to prune back, but it doesn’t stop us asking if this production could have nailed this epic as a classic with a few elisions, at least trims. Either way this production can’t otherwise be bettered. It’s irresistible and all Kushner’s life is here sweeping you with it.


Elliott though with her superb cast and ramped-up effects towards the end ensure this episodic freewheeling fantasia hooks you compulsively, beating you over the head with angels’ wings as Part One shuts them hypnotically and we’re suspended.   Angles on America this might be; it seems increasingly the vision we need to protect us from the last trump.