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 for the partnership of the Lyric Hammersmith, Headlong Theatre company and the Glasgow Citizens. 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.
It was in November 1993 that both parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, were seen together within a few days of each other at the National and on Broadway. Then, I felt Part Two didn’t quite measure up to Part One. Now, the phantasmagorical intensity of the second part is much more persuasive as the stage is overrun with lamentations, storms, transfigurations and reconciliations.
The two essential “stories” are those of two victims: Prior Walter (Mark Emerson), a witty young man from a very old family, and Roy Cohn (Greg Hicks), a corrupt right-wing lawyer whose mentors were J Edgar Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy, leader of the red scare “witch hunts” in the 1950s. Both have AIDS, though Cohn calls his “liver cancer.”
The partner of the first, Louis (Adam Levy), starts a friendship with a young bisexual lawyer from Salt Lake City, Joseph Porter Pitt (Jo Stone-Fewings), who has come to New York to work as Cohn’s protégé. Pitt’s wife, Harper (Kirsty Bushell), is a pill-popping fantasist gripped with fears about the ozone layer.
Prior has another friend who died of bird tuberculosis. He sees a missile plummeting to earth: “I’m Ground Zero!” Like so much in the two plays – they run for six and a half hours’ playing time with one long break and three short intervals – this is just weird and uncanny, concrete evidence of Kushner hitting the historical zeitgeist full in the middle.
A surrounding panoply of ghosts and angels – played by the riveting Ann Mitchell, the amazing Golda Roshuevel and the striking newcomer Obi Abili – creates a heady mix of other-worldliness. Kramer and his designers Soutra Gilmour (set) and Charles Balfour (lights) meet the demands head-on with a constant hum of city noises, medical machinery, rumbling premonitions, snatches of Bruce Springsteen and La Cage aux Folles, and a rock concert-style light show that pins the participants in a spiritual and physical void.
Hicks is a reptilian, nasty Roy Cohn, perhaps not Jewish enough, but magnificently unsympathetic even at moments of nemesis, when Mitchell materialises as a clucking Ethel Rosenberg, the Communist spy whom Cohn made a point of consigning to the electric chair. Rosheuvel’s avenging angel instigates the orgasmic earthquake that shakes Prior through to his post-agony dream world of defiant optimism.
Tony Kushner’s great achievement is to weave an epic fabric from such closely told personal stories. In the light of his recent musical with Jeanine Tesori, Caroline, or Change, we can also now see Angels as another exercise in autobiography. Louis is a conduit of Jewish guilt in finding his place in the world and the lives of other people; just one more layer in a work so rich and rewarding, an indisputable milestone and masterpiece in contemporary American theatre.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from an earlier tour stop for this production.
Two three-and-a-half hour plays about the effects of AIDS in New York in the 1980s may seem like a hard sell. But Tony Kushner’s epic tale of death, destruction and the strength of the human spirit is undeniably a modern classic. Headlong Theatre does not disappoint with its gripping production which assaults your senses from every conceivable angle.
Anyone expecting this to look like a museum piece is proved wrong within minutes. The threat of AIDS is not really the main fear of the characters. Reagan’s America and its ability to discriminate against those it deems not part of the “American Dream” is the scariest aspect of this stunning play. And, with today’s McCarthy-style witch hunts, in the name of the war on terror and ever-rising global Aids statistics, Angels feels disturbingly contemporary.
Kushner’s inventive narrative intertwines the lives and loves of each character seamlessly. Dying of AIDS, Prior Walter (Mark Emerson) is plagued not just by the crippling disease but also by the nightmarish visions of an angel (Golda Roshuevel). His boyfriend Louis (Adam Levy) seeks solace in the arms of married Mormon and legal clerk Joseph Porter Pitt (Jo Stone-Fewings). Joseph’s wife Harper (Kirsty Bushell) is a prisoner in her own home, as frightened of being attacked in the big city as he is of his homosexuality. Meanwhile, closeted Machiavellian broker Roy Cohn (Greg Hicks) punishes the gay community for his ‘sins.’
Vital ingredients for an American super soap? Possibly. But, due to the ethereal feel, the fast-moving plot and powerful imagery, this high-class drama is anything but glamorous nonsense - it’s theatre of the highest calibre.
Daniel Kramer’s sensitive handling of Kushner’s drama means that every emotion is tapped into. The play is scary, thrilling, sexy, brimming with energy, and most of all, utterly unforgettable. Soutra Gilmour’s ever-changing black set serves as a great platform for the actors too.
There are no weak links: Hicks is ferocious yet fragile, Emerson conveys humour and fear wonderfully well, and Stone-Fewings’ vulnerability is heartbreaking to behold. Ann Mitchell plays a variety of roles, both men and women and is chameleon-like throughout.
Part One (subtitled Millennium Approaches) works as a stand-alone piece. But I would recommend watching both it and Part Two (Perestroika) in one day. Only then, can you experience the full effect of how life-affirming this highly original revival is. Angels is simply divine; go forth and spread the word.