Better on angels than it is on America, Marianne Elliott’s grand revival of “Angels in America” brings Tony Kushner’s sprawling fantasia back to London’s National Theater 25 years after its first outing here. Time has changed both the play and the theater: AIDS isn’t the live issue it was, Reaganomics have been swallowed whole and debunked, and theatergoers are far more accustomed to vast imaginative leaps. A startling, near-unstageable play has settled into a showcase, but, with rich spectacle and a stellar cast including Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, it makes for blockbuster theater. To quote a memorable line from the script: Very Steven Spielberg, indeed.
What was once a surrealist state-of-the-nation play could easily become a staid history lesson. In 1986 New York, two couples break apart. Fey Prior Walter and guilt-wracked Jew Louis Ironside (Garfield and James McArdle) split under the strain of the AIDS virus; closeted Mormon Joe Pitt and his valium-addled wife Harper (Russell Tovey and Denise Gough) separate under the strain of a misguided marriage. Roy Cohn (Lane), the devil’s own lawyer and McCarthy’s right-hand man, ties the action to its era — an embodiment of Reaganism whose earthly power can’t stave off the virus — yet the abrupt arrival of an angel (Amanda Lawrence) sends Kushner’s play spinning off into space.
Rather than simply reheat old politics, Elliott aims for something more abstract. She tries to take us, with Kushner’s two abandoned sufferers Prior and Harper, to “the threshold of revelation.” As Kushner’s play bursts its seams, Elliott and her designer Ian MacNeil seek to prize open the fabric of reality itself.
Over the course of almost eight hours, MacNeil’s design modernizes bit by bit. His stage starts as a broken maze of revolving flats, so that each scene’s location feels flimsy and false, but, as the play moves from the everyday to the eternal, from America to its angels, the design strips away its staginess. Harper’s hallucinatory Antarctica is a big bare stage, speckled with falling snow, and Prior’s hospital ward expands into the void as his ghostly ancestors stop by. If act two gets meta-theatrical, with angelic re-enactments and Mormon model theaters, then by the time we reach heaven itself, it’s clear we’re backstage: a host of angels operating the big show that is earth.
It’s a big gamble, and it very nearly backfires. For two whole hours, the production feels horribly dated, like a cheap Off Broadway version that can’t afford scope or specificity. Arranged in triptych on the wide Lyttelton stage, the three concurrent scenes seem so small and the revolving sets feel so sluggish. It’s just so nineties, plonked onstage and primitively done. No matter that it eventually makes sense — everyday reality as a rickety diorama. It still takes a long while to trust the creative team again.
And yet, the choice comes good. It ties the whole skittering, scattershot play together, and instills a sense of direction and purpose. Not only that, it makes sense of Cohn — so often the odd one out in a play that pairs up two forsaken souls and their two forsakers. Cohn, here, is traveling in the exact opposite direction. If the agonies of AIDS let Prior see through the absurdity of the world, they pull Cohn back to reality with a bump. A man with no decency, unbounded by decorum or empathy, winds up in real pain, alone and afraid. If Lane initially seems too cuddly for Cohn’s monstrosity — a cute little cackler, honking down the phone — it becomes clear that he saw it all as a joke. His decline is haunting: a man grappling for life as it gives up on him. He seems to fade to grey.
Plenty do: Tovey’s Joe is a square, grey man in a square, grey suit, and McArdle glowers like a storm cloud as Louis, his hands almost permanently in his overcoat pockets. Two cowards, on the run from themselves, they give the world no color. On leaving their respective partners, they seem to find reflections of themselves in one another. Tovey is brilliant as the closeted Mormon easing into himself and his sexuality. His body loosens up, he laughs and finally stands naked before the man he loves. McArdle, meanwhile, never excuses Louis’ selfishness, but he makes clear that it comes not from vanity, but from fear and immaturity.
Gough starts out waif-like as Hannah, slurring her words and drifting through rooms, but she gradually solidifies, as if rematerializing, and regains her color. It’s a subtle performance, and Gough refuses to give in to Harper’s frailty. Even at her most out-of-it, shivering in the Antarctic snow, she’s headstrong.
Garfield is outstanding as Prior: brittle but stubborn and self-aware; fearful but mordantly funny throughout. He finds a real glee in Prior’s unexpected freedom, his prophet wrapped up in headscarf and shades like Audrey Hepburn on the run, yet he never once lets the darkness slip — the anger, the aching joints, the injustice of it all. He’s superbly supported by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, Prior’s best friend, Roy’s nurse and in many ways the play’s beating heart. He’s a well of humor and humanity, just judgemental enough to make caring cost something. He livens up every scene he’s in, sashaying through and splashing the play with color.
That he might be the angel in America (though Susan Brown has her moments as Joe’s mother) is reinforced by the way Elliott treats the Angel herself. In the production’s biggest shift, Amanda Lawrence crash-lands like a charred fledgling chick, two huge bone-white wings controlled by puppeteers. Rather than swooping in on wires, she’s hoisted shoulder-high by a swarm of “shadows” – far more dynamic, disturbing and unapologetically theatrical. This is no heavenly visitation. Around her waist hangs a tattered Stars and Stripes, and each time she coughs, an asthmatic splutter, the stage lights surge in sync. If she’s the spirit of America, she’s flown too close to the sun.
Perhaps we all have, and if America itself seems strangely absent — caught in the hum of traffic or the trappings of New York’s sidewalks, benches and bin fires — it’s perhaps because we’ve all been taken in by Reagan’s trickle-down economics. Taken in and duped too, and, while AIDS hasn’t proven as apocalyptic as it once seemed, the play’s anxious tone still registers. Its images of environmental collapse and mass migration suggest a whole planet under strain, all systems failing, just as the body succumbs to AIDS and shuts down. In heaven, stage lights explode and the power cuts out, while on earth, Kushner shows an old generation dying off, taking their certainties with them, and abandoning their children into a world of unknowns. Perestroika feels as present now, in the wake of the global economic crash, as it must have done 25 years ago.