Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels In America is a theatrical marathon, and elicits much the same effect: breathlessness, exhaustion, light-headedness – the sense that the experience has enriched you, quasi-mystically, beyond the sum of its parts. Like a 26-mile slog it leaves you a little closer to death and yet inexplicably more alive. In Marianne Elliott’s cornucopia of a production for the National, the seven-plus hours spent in your seat is worth every pang of bum-ache. A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is a resonant subtitle: like Vaughn Williams’ Theme by Thomas Tallis, the piece floats ideas and images that circle and echo, bathing you in a bright shadow of inexpressible sensation.
The experience (what better word) is divided into two parts: Millenium Approaches and Perestroika. Ian MacNeil’s design mirrors the breakdowns and breakthroughs of the characters themselves – although Part One’s revolving stages of dislocated corners at first feels cramped, the logic of it is liberated by Part Two’s scattering and reassembling rooms. It is a fractured physical world where bedrooms and hospitals shift shape and position, as if in a dream where nothing is quite how you left it. “The melting pot that didn't melt” is the disclaimer description of this New York, given to us by the Rabbi of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews. Here trapdoors and trick beds, sliding snowfall and glittering rain, post-apocalyptic paradises, luminous ladders and flaming books combine to transform the Lyttelton into a city-shaped crucible.
For all its fantastical ambition and dizzying array of characters, at the play’s heart is the simple story of a man in struggling with illness. In fact, illness here seems almost a metaphor for life – with all the pain of abandonment, the need for humour and the unexpected kindnesses that crash, angel-like, through the ceiling. It’s 1985, and Prior Walter is our stricken hero, recently diagnosed with AIDS. His boyfriend of four years, Louis, finds himself unable to cope and flees into the hesitant arms of married Mormon, Joe. Joe’s Valium-addicted wife Harper has her own ethereal part to play in Prior’s journey (“In my church we don’t believe in homosexuals,” she says to him as they meet in a dream, to which he replies: “In my church we don’t believe in Mormons.”) Fleshing out this 20th century La Ronde are real-life Reaganite attorney Roy Cohn – perishing of AIDS himself, or ‘liver cancer’ as he demands his doctor define it – and Joe’s mother Hannah, who sells up her home in Salt Lake City and comes to Brooklyn after a drunken confession from her son. Throw into the mix shredded angels, ancient Bolsheviks, imaginary friends, long-dead ancestors and vengeful ghosts, and the plot really begins to bubble.
The relatively small cast throw themselves into this proud parade of twenty-plus characters with flair, aided very much by Nicky Gillibrand’s vibrant costumes. Andrew Garfield’s Prior may at first feel slightly forced, all gliding hands and sardonic drawl, but by the end of the play he has become our undisputed champion. At the slow rise of lights in the auditorium, his closing speech announcing “The Great Work Begins,” sends shivers up 890 spines. James McArdle makes for a winning dithering Louis, racked between liberal angst, Jewish guilt and a renegade libido. Nathan Lane meanwhile brings all the madcap comedy genius of his previous London incarnation, The Producer’s Max Bialystock – yet adds here a truly terrifying ferocity. This is a man that rides roughshod over the legal world, yet refuses to accept the cause of his illness – because homosexuals “are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows.” Surely only Lane could make such a noxious character so infuriatingly likeable. Russell Tovey is tremendously sympathetic as tortured Mormon Joe, while Denise Gough channels her Olivier Award-winning, near-demonic energies as his wife Harper. Gough captures the spirit of the setting perfectly: for all Harper’s Utah blood, she is a manifestation of New York City herself – serrated and vulnerable and visionary in her rapturous delusions. Her bitter humour sets alight a scene at the Mormon Centre where a family of animatronics come to life (she has a great turn as the sharkish Martin Heller too).
In fact all the members of the ensemble double up in a way that both transforms them entirely yet nods to their previous incarnations. Susan Brown brings unexpected warmth as Joe’s mother Hannah before chilling as the spectral Ethel Rosenberg, executed for espionage (on Cohn’s watch) during the McCarthy era. The Shadows puppeteering Amanda Lawrence’s majestic Angel are indispensable, seamlessly slithering across the stage, surreptitious as any virus. The breakout star here though is Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the rare voice of compassion, Prior’s old flame Belize. Cool as a cucumber and blisteringly catty, Stewart-Jarrett brings the house down with insightful zingers: “The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high that nobody could reach it.”
A play is a peculiar ghost of a thing – no more than words, yet words which reverberate throughout the years, enhanced by the times or more often muffled. Incredibly, Kushner’s 25-year-old play doesn’t feel dated at all. Elliott’s production kneads the characters’ dreams until they feel like our own, breaking down the barriers between time and space, the private and public. It is shows like this that validate the longevity of theatre. At this performance a rare gap in the standing ovation revealed a couple, still in their seats, embracing silently, the microcosm in the macro. “Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving,” Louis says to Prior towards the end of the play. That truth applies to life and living, too.