“It’s interesting what a political context does to a play,” says Tony Kushner. Kushner’s landmark two-part epic Angels in America, described by Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens as “the first post-Reagan, post-Bush, post-Communist smash” is set to challenge us all over again in the second (baby) Bush era as Tony Blair departs the stage and the Iraq war stutters on disastrously.

Kushner began writing his play in 1988, and saw the first part staged in San Francisco in late 1991 and at the National Theatre in early 1992. In November 1993, both parts were staged within a few days of each other in London and New York. The definitive American drama of the AIDS decade, Angels in America, which is set mainly in New York in the mid-1980s, and subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, focuses on two AIDS patients: Prior Walter, a witty young man from a very old family, and Roy Cohn, a corrupt right-wing lawyer prominent in the 1950s “red scare” witch-hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy.

The world has changed

Out of this develops a fantastic narrative of brutal sex, political hysteria, magic realism, colliding dreams, good nursing and apocalyptic resolution. “Part of the play’s success,” Kushner says, “is the difficulty of finally finding a single meaning for it.” It captures the raw reality of the zeitgeist in which the millennium was approaching. Now the millennium’s here, does the play really still belong to its era? “I’ve written other things,” says Kushner, “and the world has changed.” He agrees that Angels now seems a younger, more optimistic play from another time, but politically, he insists, “we are still in the Reagan era.”

The new revival directed by Daniel Kramer, which comes to the Lyric Hammersmith following a regional tour, is co-produced with the Glasgow Citizens and Headlong Theatre, formerly the Oxford Stage Company, both set-ups with experience of ambitious scenarios and angelic interventions. The Citizens have in the past specialised in the sexual adventurism of Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams, and never flinched at the limitless cosmologies of Goethe, Tolstoy, the Marquis de Sade or Proust; while Rupert Goold’s Headlong company, the major producing partner, has presented not only Marlowe’s soul-bartering Faustus but also John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the greatest poem in English outside of Shakespeare. Milton’s Satan might indeed seem like a dry run for Kushner’s Roy Cohn, a brilliant theatrical creation conceived on a Shakespearean scale (“Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows, men who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?”).

Goold, artistic director of Headlong, approached Kushner early last year about reviving Angels. The playwright has in the past approved revivals of Part One in Sheffield and Liverpool, but the two parts have not been seen by a whole generation of British theatregoers and artists, including Goold, who is 35. He was searching for something that represented the less ideological inheritance of Brecht and knew that Angels was the best example. “I was talking to Daniel Kramer at the time about a possible Salome, but soon discovered that Angels was a key play for him, too. As a gay American, in fact, it’s the key play for him – it’s in his lifeblood. But then we both realised how appropriate it is for today, as we seem once again to be seeing the legacy of a Republican government; and it’s also scarily prescient, hinting at the impending holocaust of Ground Zero, and things like the bird flu epidemic and all that stuff about the ozone layer.”

Accidental greatness

The project may be daunting but, like so much that is great in the theatre, it began almost by accident. Kushner wrote his first play, A Bright Room Called Day, after graduating from Columbia University and while working as a telephonist at the UN Plaza Hotel. The play had been presented with success in San Francisco. (It had a negative response in New York and was seen here at the Bush in 1988, a sprightly comedy about the collapse of the Left in Germany after the Weimar Republic, with contemporary application to both Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s England.) He was then invited by the Eureka Theatre in the same city to write a second piece so that the company could apply for a special projects grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Kushner outlined a play for five gay men and the theatre got $57,000.

“An apocalyptic consciousness crystallised during the writing,” he told the New York Times. “I felt something huge taking place. Millennial events! I think the play was about what was happening, about the end of containment as an ideology. Containment is the idea that there is some sort of viral presence in the body or the body politic that has to be proscribed or isolated or crushed. Containment demonises the other, whether it’s Communism or AIDS or Jews. It’s a politics that comes completely out of fear as opposed to out of hope.”

In mid-1991, Richard Eyre, then running the National Theatre, alerted Declan Donnellan, an NT associate, to the success of Angels (Part One) in San Francisco. Donnellan, artistic director of Cheek by Jowl, had never directed a contemporary play before, but he read the first two or three scenes and said he’d love to do it. “It was about all those terrific big nasty modern issues,” he recalls, “and also a play about gay people in which they are not all good, in which the characters are three-dimensional.” Part One: Millennium Approaches opened in the NT Cottesloe in January 1992 (Henry Goodman was electrifying as Roy Cohn) and Frank Rich came across for the New York Times to hail “the most thrilling American play in ages”. The show was on the road.

The two parts of Angels (the second part, in a nod towards the liberal Soviet supremo Mikhail Gorbachev, was titled Perestroika) opened together over an all-day press show on 20 November 1992. I remember it well. Donnellan was pacing the foyer muttering anxiously about the last-minute re-writes still spewing out of the NT office fax machines (no emails in those days!). Part Two was more of comedy, a bit of a let-down after Part One, perhaps, but graced with stupendous performances, this time from David Schofield (the original Elephant Man on stage) as Roy Cohn, Stephen Dillane as Prior and Daniel Craig as the gay republican lawyer Joseph Porter Pitt, married to a Mormon played by Clare Holman. In the second play, Cohn was haunted by the ghost of the Jewish Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg whom, as the state attorney prosecutor in the 1951 trial, he had virtually consigned to the electric chair.

Angels in America was a huge success in London, maybe less so in New York, but it never proved very commercial. The Broadway run was something of a disaster, the seven-hour duration failing to fit the theatregoing habits of the “bridge and tunnel” crowd. But there was a national tour and it was performed all over the world. A third play was planned with the working title of “Representative Men” but that somehow morphed into Slavs!, first seen in New York in December 1994, a sort of coda to the whole project, parenthetically sub-titled “Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness”, and hailed by the New York Times as “an extremely funny, one-act intellectual vaudeville”. There were other plays, too, but the feeling persisted that Kushner had shot his bolt; until, at least, his masterpiece of a semi-autobiographical musical, Caroline, or Change, came into the NT repertoire last year.

Proof of the pudding

The late Robert Altman was first mooted as director of the Angels film, but nothing happened until Mike Nichols put together his wonderful Home Box Office movie version in 2003 – shamefully cold-shouldered by British television critics – with Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn), Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson (as the Angel). The Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos followed with an operatic version for the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in 2004, hailed when it surfaced in Boston last year as “a success with prosody” outstripping that of most American composers, with “truly theatrical music that advances texts rather than calling attention to itself”.

The final proof of the pudding will be in this latest, much-anticipated revival, directed by the wunderkind Kramer – responsible for last year’s Bent revival, as well as the recent Gate Theatre productions of Woyzeck and Hair – and featuring a top cast including Greg Hicks as Roy Cohn, Mark Emerson as Prior Walter, Ann Mitchell, Adam Levy and Jo Stone-Fewings.

Kushner, now 50 years old, moves on. “I’m working on a new play, and I think it’s going to be a long one,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve returned to the subject of being gay in America. What I want to do is avoid any comparisons with Angels in America.” The angels may have flown, but they are still hovering.

Following a regional tour, Angels in America opens on 26 June 2007 (previews from 20 June) at the Lyric Hammersmith where it continues until 22 July. A version of this article appears in the June issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!