FringeReview UK 2017
As in Part One, Marianne Elliott’s virtuosity in realising a wheeling gravitational force around Ian McNeil’s sets knows no bounds. In Part Two though the team-work required to orchestrate everything from angels’ wings with attendant spectres, or stage management generally is stupefying. Nicky Gillibrand’s spectacular costumes, Robby Graham’s choreography and movement. McNeil’s set is a bricolage of panels and dissolves of interiors. Paul Constable’s lighting strips darkness away just where it needs to. Ian Dickinson’s sound design out-brashes Hollywood. In threatens to overwhelm Adrian Sutton’s score, which in Part Two admits some fine melodies.
If you’ve not seen or read about Part One, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches – you might wish to read my review of that first.
Perestroika Part Two of Angels in America does what that word says, brings us from Part One’s nadir to a subtle reconstruction of earth and – almost – heaven. At least if you’re in San Francisco which heaven resembles, though it was with the 1906 earthquake there that God abandoned the scene, leaving it to helpless angels of history.
They’re clearly recording just now with horrified prescience. At one point recent lovers Lewis Ironson and Joseph Pitt confront each other over Pitt’s legal defence of the military sacking an openly gay soldier. The audience gasp: Angels real-life protagonist Roy Cohn, Senator McCarthy’s enforcer, had real protégés as well as the fictional Pitt. Protégé Donald Trump tweets an end to transgender people in the military as they file in. Pitt has been well-briefed. Cohn denies he has AIDS but the two kiss in their last scene. In life, Trump deserted mentor Cohn – whose greatest influence NT essayist Harry Scoble suggests, may just be beginning. Again the agency of great theatre resides in its perpetual renewal, and appalling relevance.
As in Part One, Marianne Elliott’s virtuosity in realising a wheeling gravitational force around Ian McNeil’s sets knows no bounds. In Part Two though the team-work required to orchestrate everything from angels’ wings with attendant spectres, or stage management generally is stupefying. Nicky Gillibrand’s spectacular costumes deserve psychedelic praise: particularly for Amanda Lawrence’s Angel and other mid-air denizens, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s various costumes including a leopard-skin-lined nurse’s garb. Robby Graham’s choreography and movement extends beyond anything recently seen at the National, bar perhaps Amadeus.
McNeil’s set is a bricolage of panels and dissolves of interiors like Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks and hotel interiors, streaked with acid neon. Apocalyptic painter John Martin might have joined the mix in Part Two. Paul Constable’s lighting strips darkness away just where it needs to; the effect’s febrile, precisely hallucinated. It softens to naturalism in hospital scenes with Andrew Garfield and paradoxically with Nathan Lane’s beyond-natural Roy Cohn attended by nurse Belize, Stewart-Jarrett, a memorable park scene with Garfield and ex James McArdle’s Louis.
Ian Dickinson’s sound design out-brashes Hollywood; it’s a feature of a few NT productions of late. In this case that can even overwhelm Adrian Sutton’s droll pastiche of John Williams scores, which in Part Two admits some fine melodies.
Perestroika starts with Susan Brown the Oldest Revolutionary Prelapsarianov (yes a Miltonic joke) addressing the perils of action without theory. It echoes her turn as the Rabbi in Part One which later here enjoys a justifying echo. Its complementary scene here though seems indulgently long, though highlighting why Brown along with Lane’s Cohn and Prior Walter’s Andrew Garfield rise to the top of an extraordinary cast, Garfield exploding into his central role, Brown protean as Mormon Hannah Pitt, Prelapsarianov, Henry, and wondrously as Ethel Rosenberg.
Though the first part of Part Two wheels in apocalyptic thinking about the place of AIDS in the cosmos- and there’s a diverting puppet scene in a Mormon museum – it’s the second section that provides the most satisfying sequence of the whole two-part drama. Since Part Two’s generally regarded as baggier, this should be emphasized as from this section on, the last two thirds of Part Two speed with an impetus and coherence now we know everyone, that can frazzle sympathies on occasion earlier.
It’s the scenes starting with Russell Tovey’s Joseph Pitt visiting Lane’s Cohn in hospital, attempting a gay confession extracting blood out of Cohn’s stone literally; the latter rises incandescent. Lane’s exploded before, but his range from fast-fading blotch to retching brimstone caps a ferocity that almost steals every scenes he’s prone in.
Next the ex lovers, McArdle’s desertion and guilt shadowed literally by Garfield’s Prior Walter in AIDS remission dressing like Death, hook you with a volatile compression of resentment. Prior and nurse Belize (Stewart-Jarrett) have scoped Pitt’s association with Cohn. We see Tovey’s Pitt with McArdle’s Louis Ironson in their aforementioned confrontation, Tovey encountering long-suffering Denise Gough‘s Harper, the wife who’ll now leave him as she realises he thinks of men when having make-up sex.
It’s Gough and Garfield who psychically reach each other too through angelic neurology, though the powerful scenes come with Brown encountering Prior, sloughing previous convictions, transferring maternity from one gay man to another – Brown sovereign in this region.
Though wincing with comedy, it’s Brown as Ethel Rosenberg – the woman Cohn had had executed – that provides killer scenes. McArdle’s Ironson has been brought in by Stewart-Jarrett to say Kaddish for the newly-dead Cohn he despises – he’s not keen on Ironson either – but though Part One’s Rabbi (Brown) intoned it for his grandmother Ironson’s secular and rusty. So the unseen spectre prompts him. It’s hilarious and deeply touching, looping back to the immigrants’ odyssey right at the start. But there’s an unexpected twist quite apart from the one Belize visits on Ironson. And Cohn has something very useful to someone else.
Doubling as angelic nurse Amanda Lawrence’s angel talks much of the poetry of Part Two, with time as an infection and blood imagery spattered, though it’s her body contact with Garfield and Brown that literally humanise everything from Walter’s erections every time she arrives (angels sexually insatiable and polymorphous) and set heaven scenes, spotlit ladders, ascending split levels. Angelic helplessness, indeed bureaucracy doesn’t quite mirror the Reagan administration’s blanking the crisis, but the need for agency on earth, to decide on living, rings out.
There’s much in the finale and epilogue to arouse, cajole and historicise. But Gough’s lone seated Harper dreaming that dead souls fly up to repair the ozone layer is the most memorable for simplicity and clarity. It’s a pity Gough isn’t more on stage but she’s as affecting as Lawrence, with Tovey providing in his latter stages a hang-dog haplessness that simply grows. The powers of McArdle and the outstandingly funny Stewart-Jarrett leap out, whilst Lane, Garfield and Brown simply combust.
If this sounds exhausting, it is a little, and exiting the Lyttleton at 23.15 isn’t for the faint-footed outside London. Part Two’s running-time is shortening, though. Nevertheless Part Two somehow pulls through with its magnificent central section and later clinchers to prove this deserves its epic stature. In that sense it’s not just its heralding the end if not the last trump that makes this the more satisfying half. Reservations aside about how scenes might be trimmed, there’s nothing like this, for conveying a generational anger undergoing criminal abandonment, and blazoning all corners of a nation. And the almost national multitude of cast and creatives Elliott’s assembled stands proud in this, almost beyond praise.