Joe Holyoake went to watch one of the most-anticipated shows of the summer…all 8 hours of it.
It’s only been 25 years since Angels In America had its UK premiere at the National Theatre. This makes it a slightly inconvenient amount of time to revisit the production. It doesn’t have that tidy clean-sweep of 50 years, as seen with recent events held for the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. It’s still too fresh in many people’s memories for it to be a purely historic piece; just watch Charlie Hides break down on this series of Drag Race after she recalled having to bury all her friends in the 80’s. But at the same time, HIV has incontrovertibly changed, and we’re now so lucky to live in an age of antiretroviral drugs , PrEP, and easy testing, that have made the infection more manageable and far less scary.
From an HIV/AIDS perspective, it sits in an awkward position between being a tribute and a warning. Although to say Angels In America is just an AIDS play would be like saying Titanic is just a film about poor naval navigation. There is slightly more to it than that.
And with the production clocking in at around eight hours long, you would certainly hope so. This can appear slightly daunting at first, but each of the two plays (Millenium Approaches and Perestroika) are split into three parts of just over an hour each, with short intervals in-between. Put like that, it’s not so different from binge-watching a whole TV series on a lazy Sunday, something most of us have done at one point or another.
In fact, ‘television’ is a word that I keep overhearing throughout the day, always as a compliment. One reason for this is the supremely-talented cast. I know it’s not the done thing within theatrical circles to be overexcited about famous actors (just look at way audiences were criticised for applauding Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet), but it’s difficult not to be for this production. From my limited experience with the theatre, there seems to be a hierarchy of actor recognition in plays, from young thesps and nearly-men actors, up through to sitcom second-fiddles and soapstars, and lastly to the sort of Graham-Norton’s-Couch superstars, which Angels in America has in abundance. Andrew Garfield takes on the lead role of Prior Walter, Olivier Award winner Denise Gough and Russell Tovey play Mormon couple Harper and Joe, while Nathan Lane is powerfully corrupt lawyer, Roy Cohn.
The plays follow three separate stories that come to increasingly interweave with each other. The main branch involves former drag queen Prior Walter and his boyfriend, Louis. One of the first scenes sees Prior reveal his new-found lesions to Louis, who in turn reacts horrifically and weighs up whether or not just to get up and leave him. We also meet married Mormons Harper & Joe, who look picture-perfect on the surface, but are both hiding secrets; namely her Valium addiction and his dormant homosexuality. Clerk Joe also features in the story of successful attorney Roy Cohn, who has also been diagnosed with AIDS, although he claims that it’s liver cancer, much to the chagrin of his doctor. The first half is a more domestic affair, with a slow build-up until the first angel appears in the final act. Then, in the second play, all shackles are broken and it goes fully surreal, dwelling in visions and hallucinations until we’re not sure what’s real and what’s not anymore.
The National’s staging is just incredible. Despite a cavernous stage, the characters never get lost in the intimate scenes, mainly due to the intelligent system of revolving rooms. The vast space is also utilised spectacularly for the more psychedelic moments, such as the visits to Antarctica or Heaven. As well as that, there are pyrotechnics, apartments appearing out of nowhere, and a beautifully-choreographed six-person angel, which gave the show a truly blockbuster feel. The only minor niggle was that what few sex scenes looked a bit amateur and comedic in comparison to the bombast of the rest of proceedings, but I suppose that’s just British theatre for you.
In addition to the sensational production, the cast each put in breathtaking performances, even putting aside the immense stamina needed to perform for 8 hours in a day without a single hiccup. Garfield is impressive as the camp and caustic Prior, who descends into sweaty derangement as his condition worsens, while Tovey and Gough each mix up bubbly and tortured as Joe and Harper respectively. The stand-out star is Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn: He’s a perma-furious, spam-red, collection of jowls, constantly shaking in anger and barking gutteral ‘fucks’. He’s hilarious to watch, a combination of Malcolm Tucker and Tony Soprano.
However, it’s fair to say that the play’s lost a bit of its potency since its release. There was a group of old thesps sitting behind us (the sort who introduced everyone with the prefix ‘ahh, it’s the great…’) and they were recalling the charged atmosphere of 1992 and how it felt genuinely inflammatory at the time. That wasn’t really the case today. Case in point: it was difficult to take Louis’s outburst at Joe’s legal rulings allowing ‘state-sponsored fag-bashing’ seriously when one of the designers in this very QX office was getting married the following weekend (congrats Janne!).
There’s slightly more relevance when it comes to the political situation of the time. The angels send down a book to Prior, who in turn must spread the word and stop mankind from migrating and changing too much. While the play ends with the earth-bound characters rejecting this with wonder at the Berlin Wall coming down, it is slightly depressing to realise that we’re now heading back to building walls and isolationism. It seems we’ve been doing the Angels’ work all along.
This Trumpian shadow looms over the play, especially in the shape of Cohn: a corrupt lawyer who wins his cases with increasingly unethical means, much rather preferring to be ‘effective, rather than pure’. And would you guess what? He actually was Donald Trump’s lawyer in the 1980’s. With half of the characters berating Reagan and the other half championing the end of Liberalism, little would they know that it was going to get a whole lot worse 25 years on. Although, saying that, when this revival was commissioned, it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to see the Democrats into a third successive term, so there is a certain amount of fortuitousness involved in this prescience, as with anything really.
But ultimately, was it enjoyable? Yes, though it’s not to say it can’t be hard work. At times, it’s an onslaught of meandering monologues, characters yelling at each other, and enough themes to fill a whole West-End season. When the angels get fully involved in the final act, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand. However, that’s not to take away from the myriad of hilarious, mostly drug-abetted, scenes, made even more warped by the innovative stage use. The spaced-out Mormon diorama, with Tovey as a puppet figure of one of the original settlers, was just ingenious, as was a gathering of Prior Walter’s ancestors at his hospital bedside. And despite the heavy subject matters, you do leave feeling full of hope with the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. And that alone is worth eight hours.
Angels In America is at the National Theatre until Saturday 19th August.
Tickets have all sold out, but there are still ways to see it:
• It will be broadcast in UK cinemas by NT Live, with Part One on 20th July and Part Two on 27th July.
• Hundreds of £20 tickets are available in the three remaining Angels ballots, which are open for the whole month and winners drawn at the end. You can enter each one, but you must do so before midday 24th May, 28th June, and 26th July to be in with a chance.
• Day tickets will be available to buy on the day of performance at 9.30am from the ground floor box office. Get there early and be prepared to queue!