The first major UK revival of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winner Angels in America opened at west London’s Lyric Hammersmith on Tuesday (26 June 2007, previews from 20 June), with both three-and-a-half hour plays performed back to back for the critics.
Kushner’s seven-hour epic, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, is set in New York City in the mid-1980s and centres on two couples: AIDS sufferer Prior has been left by his lover Louis, who is unable to cope with the disease; meanwhile, the marriage of Mormons Joe and Harper is threatened by Joe’s lifelong struggle to deny his homosexuality. Roy Cohn, a ruthlessly right-wing lawyer and Joe’s mentor, is also a closet homosexual and AIDS victim.
Written for eight actors assuming multiple roles, Angels in America was commissioned and developed by San Francisco’s Eureka Theater. Part one, Millennium Approaches, had its UK premiere at the National in 1992, and was joined in rep by part two, Perestroika, the following year, both directed by Declan Donnellan with casts including Henry Goodman, Stephen Dillane, Daniel Craig and Joseph Mydell. The piece opened on Broadway in 1993, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2003, Mike Nichols’ made the drama into an HBO TV mini-series which starred Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker and Patrick Wilson.
The new Headlong Theatre production – co-produced by the Glasgow Citizens, where its tour commenced in April, and the Lyric Hammersmith, where it now concludes with a run to 22 July 2007 – is directed by Daniel Kramer and designed by Soutra Gilmour. The eight-strong ensemble, performing some 35 roles between them, are Greg Hicks (as Roy Cohn), Mark Emerson, Obi Abili, Adam Levy, Jo Stone-Fewings, Ann Mitchell, Golda Roshuevel and Kirsty Bushell.
Fifteen years after Kushner’s drama was first seen, and hailed a masterpiece, in London, the chief question for critics was: has Angels in America stood the test of time? On that, as well as the quality of Daniel Kramer’s production, overnight critics were deelply. While some felt Kushner’s drama still deserved its revered status, others revised their opinions, viewing it as a dated and unnecessarily long “period piece”.
Angels in America
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “Unsettling, powerful, moving, ambitious and deeply felt. All the qualities of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America remain apparent in director Daniel Kramer’s revival … In addition, there is a renewed pang of historical significance in a drama that defines the AIDS age like no other while digging deep into the American national psyche during the Ronald Reagan presidency, ‘the end of liberalism’ and the impending sense of doom and helplessness … Hicks is a reptilian, nasty Roy Cohn … Tony Kushner’s great achievement is to weave an epic fabric from such closely told personal stories … an indisputable milestone and masterpiece in contemporary American theatre.
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “At his considerable best, Tony Kushner is a provocative, funny and moving writer, but boy, he can bore for America, too. I always imagined Shaw to be the most impossibly garrulous of authors, but in comparison with this two-part, seven-hour revival of Kushner's ‘gay fantasia on national themes’, GBS seems downright taciturn. And with Kushner there is an emotional incontinence to match the logorrhoea. Left-wing political paranoia is matched by shrill hysteria … But then Kushner was writing at a time of panic, when AIDS seemed like an old-fashioned plague visited on the prosperous, hedonistic West. His play is a protracted cry of anguish, ripped from the heart … What's really needed now, I felt, as this long day's journey into night dragged on, isn't this revival of Kushner but a sharp new play that looks at the continuing horrors - and the malign politics - of AIDS in Africa. Watching Daniel Kramer's revival for Headlong Theatre, in which a cast of eight play 35 characters, it also seemed clear that the play would greatly benefit from being cut to half its present running time … Kramer's production can't eclipse memories of the British première at the NT in the early Nineties. The staging is neither spectacular nor beautiful enough (the angels are particularly disappointing) and much of the acting lacks depth and definition … Jo Stone-Fewings is excellent, however, as the sexually confused Mormon … There are some strong and moving moments in this visionary play, but not nearly enough of them to justify the show's punishing length.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Let me concede that Daniel Kramer’s revival delivered plenty that was impressive: daring staging, vigorous dialogue and terrific acting, notably from Adam Levy as a guilt-tormented Jewish gay and Greg Hicks as the late Roy Cohn … The play is historically important because it restored theatrical imagination, political aggro and social size to an American theatre where they were almost totally missing. And the first, stronger part, which Kushner called Millennium Approaches, is packed with a foreboding which, when the porous ozone layer is invoked, now seems all too justified. Especially in the second part, the piece can get prolix, portentous and dull … All the cast, starting with Levy’s splendidly febrile Louis, bring rare emotional and physical power to the proceedings … Everyone should see the first part. The second is for millenarians with very, very long attention spans.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Tony Kushner's two-part, seven-hour epic, first seen in the early 1990s, certainly has its periodic longueurs. Yet its portrait of the crisis and confusion in Reagan's America is sustained by the daring of Kushner's concept and by a grand humanist vision that comes ringingly across in Daniel Kramer's fine revival for Headlong … Although the angelic scenes in the second play, Perestroika, show Kushner at his most prolix, it is the rebuttal of the celestial credo that makes his concept so moving. On the personal level, he suggests there is liberation even in loss. And, on the public level, he argues for purposeful change … Kushner's message about metamorphosis still holds good, and the final moments in which Prior, echoing Goethe's final words, cries, ‘More life!’ are profoundly affecting … Kushner's twin plays present a daunting challenge to which Kramer and his eight-strong cast majestically rise.”
Nicholas De Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Time sometimes dislodges the theatrical high and mighty from their perches. Fifteen years ago, this seven-hour epic, inspired by the AIDS epidemic, won all the major prizes … Daniel Kramer's new production, though, leaves me forced to eat several inches of the words of praise I lavished on Angels in America in 1993. This feverish, emotionally hyperactive and hustling production buzzes with flickers of camp wit. It does not, however, disguise the extent to which Kushner's ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, with its gay soap operatics and magic realism, three loquacious ghosts, Obi Abili's cool, drag-queen/nurse and a William Blake-like angel with wings, now fails to muster a serious dramatic charge. The success of antiretroviral therapy has meant that, outside Africa, many people with HIV are now able to lead almost illness-free lives and may even achieve a normal life-span. Kushner's play has, therefore, dated … Kushner regards the American AIDS tragedy as symptomatic of a country lost to democracy, riddled with corruption and greed, spiritually and morally deficient, virulently homophobic. The accusation would carry more dramatic weight if it were better substantiated … Kushner whips this weird melee of things gay, divine and political into a drama that sometimes verges on the preposterous.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (one star) – “It is hard to overstate the impact of Tony Kushner's AIDS drama when it appeared in two instalments in 1992 and 1993 … Fifteen years on, life-saving drug treatments have tamed HIV in developed countries and Angels in America has become a period piece. This first British revival is a chance to assess whether it stands the test of time. Sadly, the answer is no. Writing two separate plays to be seen a year apart, Kushner padded them with fantasy sequences, wordy monologues and long theological meditations … Cut by four hours, it could make a powerful single play. However, not even a much reduced script would work in the hands of Daniel Kramer, the precocious young American responsible for this abysmal production. His speciality is to demand larger-than-life performances from his actors, and the result here is a cacophony of screeching, whining and grotesque over-acting which bludgeons every jot of pathos, tension and wit from the play … Plaudits are due to Jo Stone-Fewings and Obi Abili, as a gay Mormon and a drag-queen nurse, for performances which rise above this nonsense.”
- by Terri Paddock