The Theatreguide.London Review
in America [Part I: Millennium Approaches; Part II: Perestroika]
The best American play of the 1990s, Tony Kushner's two-part epic is a thrilling theatrical experience, and this new production from the Headlong Theatre Company (with the Glasgow Citizens and the Lyric Hammersmith) cannot be missed by anyone open to a celebration of imagination, heart and life itself.
That said, I must also note that it consists of two plays, each over three hours long, and while the ideal experience is a matinee-plus-evening marathon, it may be a bit daunting for some, who might prefer two consecutive nights. (If you can only see one, pick the first - it will leave you with a great cliff-hanger, but it is marginally the stronger play.)
Kushner uses the advent of AIDS as a filter and metaphor for an exploration of the whole American experience of the 1980s, touching on history, politics, morality, religion, sexuality and the psychology of the 'Me' decade.
Not only does he pull that off, making convincing and exciting logical and emotional connections, but he finds his way through some of the darkest observations to a conclusion of affirmation and hope.
If I've made that sound terribly deep, it is also frequently hilarious. If I've made it sound talky and philosophical, it involves imaginary leaps and theatrical magic that few American playwrights have ever attempted. And if I have a few very minor cavils with Daniel Kramer's direction or one or another actor's choices, this production captures more of the play than you could hope for, and is in some ways far superior to the National Theatre version of fifteen years ago.
At the centre of Kushner's play is Prior Walter, a gay New Yorker with AIDS, abandoned by his lover Louis who can't handle the horror. Louis meets Joe, a deeply closeted Republican Mormon lawyer, whose marriage to Harper is collapsing.
Eventually we'll also meet the male nurse Belize, Joe's mother, various doctors, lawyers, angels and characters out of drug-induced hallucinations, and the historical figures of Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg.
(Quick history lesson. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the 1950s as Russian spies, on flimsy evidence. Recent KGB files have shown that they were guilty, but the fact remains that at the time they were railroaded. Roy Cohn was part of the prosecution team, though he had come to prominence earlier as aide to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy; he later became a very rich, powerful and corrupt lawyer who was disbarred shortly before dying of AIDS.)
Tony Kushner makes Roy Cohn a symbol of all that is evil in the American Dream of ambition, power and patriotism, and Ethel Rosenberg's ghost the play's conscience, which itself must struggle toward acceptance and forgiveness.
Meanwhile, back in the main plot, Prior's medication-induced hallucinations cross circuit with Harper's Valium-generated escape fantasies, Louis struggles with guilt at his failure to Prior and with the incongruity of being attracted to Joe whose politics and philosophy are everything he detests, Joe struggles with the temptations of both the flesh and Roy Cohn's corruption, Joe's mother comes to the Sodom of New York City and copes better than she expected.
And Prior is visited by an Angel.
The Angel's arrival and demand that Prior serve as a prophet for her message, which makes for one hell of a climax to the first play, takes us into the second. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that her message is a surprising one, and it is Prior's realisation that he cannot accept it, and that being human in fact demands its rejection, that guides the play to its hopeful and affirmative conclusion.
And this production captures it all, or as much of it as any staging could. There are set pieces that in their writing and staging take on a dreamlike or nightmarish intensity - Prior and Harper meeting in the crossed circuit of their separate dreams, Roy explaining to his doctor that he is not a homosexual because homosexuals have no clout and he does, Prior dreaming of a reunion with Louis, the arrival of the Angel, and perhaps none as strong and as central to the play's meanings as Belize forcing Louis to say a prayer for the dead Roy, with Ethel's mystical guidance.
Particularly exciting is director Daniel Kantor's cinematic cross-cutting between scenes, so that at any moment three or four things may be going on, often on different levels of reality and fantasy - all with absolute clarity, and all subtly reinforcing the sense of connectedness and shared humanity that are at the core of the play's message.
Mark Emerson gives what may well be the performance of the year as Prior, taking him on a journey from shallow camp through horrors, ecstasies and a wild-eyed intensity that could be either prophetic inspiration or madness, to the wisdom and affirmation of the conclusion.
It is a tribute to his performance that, while in every other production of this play the actor playing Roy Cohn has stolen the show, and while Greg Hicks gives a magnetic performance as Roy here, it is still Mark Emerson who anchors the play and holds the focus.
Greg Hicks makes Roy a little more of a thug than I would have preferred (cold, debonair self-confidence seeming more appropriate to his particular kind of evil), but it's a strong, dynamic portrayal that finds all the nuances in the role without unbalancing the play.
The rest of the cast, who also double and quadruple in secondary roles, are all flawless: Adam Levy as Louis, Kirsty Bushell as Harper, Jo Stone-Fewings as Joe, Obi Abili as Belize, Ann Mitchell as mother and Ethel, Golda Rosheuvel as the Angel.
Yes, it's close to seven hours in total, and yes, that's not for the casual, once-a-year audience. But if you love theatre, if you are open to dramatic imagination and a thrilling emotional journey, you dare not miss this experience.
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Review - Angels in America - Lyric Hammersmith 2007