There are many reasons for welcoming the return of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to the National Theatre in London, where the epic play’s two parts were played together for the first time in 1993, but one stood out at its opening on Thursday.
The British producers had imported Broadway’s Nathan Lane to play the homophobic and gay Roy Cohn, and he brought subtlety as well as mesmeric power to a non-fictional personage described by another gay character as “the worst human being who ever lived.”
Marianne Elliott’s production made for a long day’s journey that lasted well into night. Millennium Approaches started at 1 p.m. and Perestroika ended after 11, with time to gulp supper beside the Thames in between. But if ever a show earned its length, or Kushner his garrulity and occasional repetitiveness, here it was.
In the 1980s the American theater seemed determined to keep confirming the critic Kenneth Tynan’s view that its dramatists had developed a squint from “staring too long down domestic microscopes and never looking out of the window.”
It was Kushner’s Gay Fantasia on National Themes, as he subtitled Angels in America, that definitively substituted macrocosms for microscopes or, rather, allowed the boldly political and the painfully intimate to coexist on one stage. Moreover, it did so with an inventiveness, a surreal bravado, that made almost every other play seem shrivelled.
Though Millennium Approaches had its world premiere in San Francisco in 1991, both it and Perestroika, which followed in Los Angeles a year later, are set in the mid-1980s. And both mainly involve the same people. Prior Walter becomes desperately sick with AIDS and is deserted by his lover, Lewis.
A Mormon couple break up, Harper Pitt discovering that her lawyer husband Joe is a closet gay, Joe acknowledging his homosexuality by having a fling with Lewis.
Guilt, remorse and recrimination play large parts here, but not in the case of Cohn. In Lane’s riveting performance the corrupt lawyer, McCarthy henchman and (so it’s said) one-time influence on Donald Trump remains defiantly in denial as he slowly, angrily, balefully succumbs to AIDS.
With the HIV and AIDS pandemic finally under control, at least in America, Kushner’s saga might seem dated. Well, it isn’t. So-called period pieces have a way of falling asleep, then coming strikingly awake again. Angels in America, though set in an era that clearly had Kushner sickened by Reaganism and fearful of the impending millennium, often leaves you feeling that the characters are talking more about 2017 than 1985 or that relatively inoffensive year, 2000.
For those uneasy in the Trump, Putin, and Kim era, line after line resonates. A triumphant Washington apparatchik: “It’s the end of liberalism, the end of New Deal socialism, the end of secular humanism.” Belize, the gay nurse who tends Cohn and reproaches Lewis: “America—terminal, crazy and mean.” A demented baglady: “In the new century I think we will all be insane.” Harper, who is as worried about the ozone layer as about her cut-off husband: “The end of the world is at hand”. Or Lewis, who is obsessed with the tribulations of democracy: “There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there are only the decoys and ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics.”
That gives the play its overall title but isn’t quite correct. Angels appear, first and sensationally to the ailing Prior in what he calls a “very Steven Spielberg” moment, but they turn out to be impotent.
God apparently made his exit in dismay after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and, as an angel says, the world is “failing, failing,” with “more horror than can be borne” on the horizon. What AIDS was doing to the gay community in 1985 the world is doing to itself right now.
All that gives the play not only a pessimism that’s glancingly challenged by a somewhat sentimental coda but size, sweep and imaginative daring. Ian MacNeil’s set may be a simple matter of thin sliding walls that shift and interlock to become rooms, boxes with windows, even strange grey Rubik cubes.
But in slither ant-like creatures bearing Amanda Lawrence as an angel with thistledown hair and a butterfly body between great, gaudy wings. There are other spectacular effects too: explosions, garish light, a huge flame that disconcerts Prior, who has second sight, while his nurse bumbles unseeingly about.
As that shows, the two plays can be funny, are often witty and, despite the odd lurch into didacticism, are sharply written.
At the National they are also finely staged, with Elliott bringing both fluency and clarity to overlapping scenes and dream characters, and at least as well acted as they were at the same address 24 years ago.
Denise Gough’s huddled, troubled Harper grows in pluck as she faces her husband, in Russell Tovey’s performance as buttoned-up in manner as in his dull, grey suit. Andrew Garfield’s Prior, a bit too apt to pose and flounce at first, leaves you in no doubt of the pain, bewilderment, insecurity, mental anguish, and outrage that threatens to destroy his every aspect.
And then there’s Nathan Lane, The Producers’ Max Bialystock reincarnated as Satan.
Lane gives us all the demonic bluster of the man who says he can’t be a gay man because “homosexuals” are losers and he’s a man with clout, meaning that he’s a straight guy who sometimes has sex with men.
He opts with relish for four-letter tirades, often to the three or four people he’s put on hold on the phone, but then seamlessly becomes sly and sinister, notably when he tries to lure Joe into becoming his man in the Justice Department. His contempt for the law, the system and other people is absolute. But then comes the killer diagnosis he can’t, won’t accept.
After he has harangued and threatened a weary doctor, he pauses, momentarily broods, then reverts to type, pulling up his trademark yellow tie with a confident jerk. Lane’s performance is full of such telling touches, some of them exquisitely timed, as when he tells a Washington contact that Joe is married, adding with a miniscule hint of disgust the redundant words “he has a wife.”
But there’s also a sense that for him Joe is more than a useful minion. A wished-for lover? A sort of son? Lane lets such notions half-invisibly dangle.
And then the fixer comes up against the unfixable. Until the end his slow dying doesn’t lessen the venom, even when his room is invaded by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he helped to send to the electric chair.
But his face turns beige, his hands begin to flutter, his voice becomes a bleat, the strength visibly evaporates and, with it, perhaps a mite of the evil he’ll never renounce.
He asks Rosenberg for a lullaby, mistaking her for the mother who, it’s suggested, he remembers as angry—and, having declared that he hopes to be reborn as an octopus, the monster dies.
The playwright David Hare once said that malign energy tends to upstage, overwhelm, commandeer the audience.
It says much for the strength of Elliott and her actors that this doesn’t happen, but it’s such a close-run thing that I wasn’t surprised to find she or her author had cut the scene in which the dead Cohn appears in a fiery furnace to offer his lawyer’s wiles to the Devil.
“Sue somebody, it’s good for the soul,” was the advice he’d given nurse Belize. But had he a soul? As Lane performs the role, just perhaps, but one he had done his very best to murder.
Angels in America is at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, through Aug. 19. Book here.