Angels in America … epic, bleak and real

When I went: 13 May 2017

Music Owl Hoot rating: 4/5

Location: National Theatre, London

Performers: Andrew Garfield (Prior Walter), Denise Gough (Harper Pitt), Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn), James McArdle (Louis Ironson), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize), Russell Tovey (Joseph Pitt), Amanda Lawrence (The Angel), Hannah Pitt (Susan Brown), Stuart Angell (Angel Shadow), Laura Caldow (Angel Shadow), Claire Lambert (Angel Shadow), Stan West (Angel Shadow), Lewis Wilkins (Angel Shadow)

Creative team: Tony Kushner (playwright), Marianne Elliott (director), Ian MacNeil (set designer), Adrian Sutton (music), Robby Graham (choreographer)

Approximate price: £60

Special points: Structure and staging

Best bit: End third of Millennium Approaches

If I could change one thing: Cut Russian monologue


The play:

Angels in America is not the ‘easiest’ of plays, but it is absolutely worth seeing. Its subject matter (dealing with AIDS in the context of homosexuality in 1980s America, with religion and faith in the background) is heavy, and it is super-long (7 hours and 30 minutes in total, split into two parts). Part One (Millennium Approaches) is about 3 hours and 3 minutes, Part Two (Perestroika) 4 hours. When each Part is split into three with two intervals, as it was when I saw it, watching it is like binge-watching a whole season of Netflix’s latest compelling offering on TV. What keeps it from being too depressing are the surreal elements and the bleak humour sprinkled throughout each scene.

While I think that overall there was enough valuable material here to justify the extremely long running time, after seeing it all in one day I did think that some small bits could be cut without losing any of the overall impression – for instance, the Russian monologue on capitalism at the start of Part Two, and some of the dying scenes focusing around Roy Cohn.

The existentialist parts and conversations hovering around life and death and fate sometimes reminded me of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which I happened to see shortly before this; the focus on AIDS and gay relationships also recalled Rent, although some of the characters here are older and this play has less of a focus on one generation. The irreverent depictions of angels and heaven (which apparently caused controversy among conservative groups when this play opened in the 1990s) had echoes of His Dark Materials.

This performance:

The performance I saw featured some famous actors (Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane) but it would be unfair to cry stunt casting as everyone’s performance was extremely impressive. The audience clearly loved every part of the show and were quick to give standing ovations.

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in particular gave a really visceral and physical, and often funny, performance and made you root for him in every scene. I have only really see him play endearing characters on film – I am sure he won’t stick to this forever, but he does do endearing very well. Nathan Lane’s substantial theatre experience was obvious and his voice and acting choices as the sleazy Roy Cohn were clearly expressed right up to the back row.

I previously saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as directed by Marianne Elliott and the direction was sharp again here, with some really impressive staging which got more complex as the play went on and made use of the additional front stage in the Lyttleton. The puppet-like Angel Shadows were creepy and cool and helped to add some mystique to the Angel character, which could easily be overdone in less confident hands. Some of the Angel scenes were pretty weird and I got the feeling that they would lose some audiences, but they just about worked for me.

Although I spent much of the early parts of the play feeling sorry for most of the characters and wanting everything to turn out well for them, I knew that that wouldn’t happen given the subject matter, so I ended up quite relieved that some of them were OK, sort of, at the end. Prior Walter’s ending monologue, breaking through the fourth wall and turning the lights on in the audience, hammered home the show’s message about gay people refusing to have secret deaths any longer and that they would not go away. It is sad that this message, like the themes of race in The Scottsboro Boys, is still as relevant as it is, and that some of the comments about American conservatism and ‘death of liberalism’ are still relevant to today’s America, although clearly none of those promises or fears from Reagan’s era came true before.



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