Too old to be timely and too new to be a period piece? That was the risk in reviving Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” 16 years after its lauded debut. But although its concerns with Reaganite politics, the rationing of the anti-HIV drug AZT and the corrupt practices of a certain Gotham lawyer place it firmly in the mid-1980s, “Angels in America” seems more prophetic than ever as it launches a major U.K. tour in Glasgow with an excellent staging by helmer Daniel Kramer.
Perhaps mankind is predisposed to apocalyptic worries, but in 2007, the fears expressed by Kushner’s characters about the ozone layer, the fatal power of a virus and the divisive effects of Republicanism seem more apposite than ever. Just because we know the world didn’t end in the year 2000 doesn’t mean we’re any more relaxed about the future. The prevalence of AIDS is still high and it seems only a matter of time before new diseases such as bird flu take their toll. Meanwhile, global warming has turned from theory into fact and the Bush administration continues where Reagan left off.
Kramer makes no attempt to force these parallels, although neither is his staging a 1980s nostalgia fest. Mark Bouman’s costume designs, with their color combinations in lime greens and vibrant oranges, do not overstate the period details and there’s little to signal the era, barring an occasional Bruce Springsteen track, that isn’t already in the dialogue.
The reason the two-part play continues to work is that Kushner’s drama is rooted in an archetypal struggle. In “Millennium Approaches,” his characters are shackled by orthodoxy — whether political, religious or sexual. Seeing no way out of their dilemmas, they associate their entrapment with the imminent apocalypse, a stance that’s fatally pessimistic. Only when they liberate themselves, as they do in the hallucinatory “Perestroika,” can they imagine a future. This sense of repression and release is what makes “Angels in America” stand for more than the specifics of its setting.
What also sets the play apart is its audacious mix of theatricality, philosophy and poetry. That explains how, despite its lack of resolution, “Millennium Approaches” was a hit two years before Kushner completed the second part.
American-born Kramer has all these aspects within his grasp, presenting an unceasingly fluid seven hours of theater played out on Soutra Gilmour’s open, elemental set. The director understands the way Kushner soars from soap opera to metaphysics to paint something majestic from the simple building blocks of human relationships and the way the juxtaposition and interlocking of scenes is inherently theatrical. So too are the surreal interventions of angels, mannequins and long-dead ancestors. Kramer, who directed recent West End revivals of “Bent” and “Hair,” makes you accept everything in this theater of dreams.
He couldn’t do this without his actors, of course, and he has assembled a flawless company. Roy M. Cohn, the fictional version of the real-life political fixer, is a gift of a part, played by Greg Hicks with a rasping, amphibian creepiness that’s strangely compelling. Likewise, Jo Stone-Fewings brings emotional complexity to the role of Joseph Porter Pitt, the closeted gay Mormon, revealing the callous contradictions behind the nice-guy exterior.
Rest of the cast is equally strong, whether it’s the shape-shifting Ann Mitchell, switching from Jewish icon to Mormon matriarch, bleached blond Mark Emerson bringing dry wit to Prior Walter, the AIDS patient with a visionary imagination, or Kirsty Bushell, a tremendously deadpan Harper Amaty Pitt, the delusional young wife in a sexless marriage. With otherworldly appearances from a sonorous Golda Rosheuvel and a striking Obi Abili, plus Adam Levy’s charming Louis Ironson, the cast creates a world which, even after seven hours, it is a wrench to escape.