What an experience to see both parts of Tony Kushner’s epic state of the nation play (USA) on the same day, Saturday, 10th June, at the Lyttleton Theatre, London. We saw Part One: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES at 1.0 p.m. and Part Two: PERESTROIKA at 7.0 p.m. Before you ask – yes – we did have a walk and a bite to eat in between performances. Was it worth the nearly eight hours sitting on our bums? It certainly was. Marianne Elliott’s production, featuring more than thirty characters with some incredible multi-casting was not just “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” as advertised, but encompassed all the emotions from the comedic to the heart-rending.
This is one of the seminal plays about the AIDS epidemic in the eighties, when lots of people died. Effective HIV treatment didn’t become available until 1996. It works by reducing the amount of HIV in the bloodstream to indetectable levels. This means that few people in the US and UK will be diagnosed with AIDS any more and we are now seeing the first generation to live to old age with the HIV virus. This play is not just about AIDS, although one character, Roy Cohn, dies of it, still protesting he’s not gay and has liver cancer, not AIDS, but another, Prior Walter, lives on, giving an optimistic ending.
First performed on Broadway in 1993, ANGELS IN AMERICA has had quite a few productions since then. Extracts from some of these can be seen on Youtube. Many of them look a little tired now as far as presentation is concerned, but the acting always works well, due to the well-written dialogue and dilemmas. I loved the 2003 HBO Mini Series directed by by Mike Nicholls and, before seeing the current National Theatre production, couldn’t imagine it being presented better on stage than on film. Emma Thompson’s angry angel crashing through the roof of Prior’s bedroom is the dramatic entrance to end all dramatic entrances. I also liked the realism of the film’s settings and the acting was completely convincing. I came to the Lyttleton wondering how, even with all the resources of the National Theatre, Kushner’s play could possibly surpass the film version. To be honest, for me, it doesn’t. Beg, borrow or steal a copy and see the mini series, if you can.
I did find the presentation of the first half, MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, cleverly devised. Quite rightly, no attempt was made at realism – apart from the acting. The isolation of the characters was shown theatrically by a series of ever-moving often empty boxes or rooms, like a giant jigsaw. Prior’s bed is there as he becomes ill but Harper Pitt, who has lost her way in life, finds herself in one empty room or passage after another with no furniture or anything solid to hang on to. I didn’t find the overall concept of the second half, PERESTROIKA, so striking. For the most part beds or offices were rolled on stage on trucks, a practical but not original solution. The angel had nothing of the power of Thompson’s angel but the concept of making her fly as if she were a puppet, very much in the style of Warhorse (the same designers were responsible for the puppetry as in the latter production) was compelling to watch. I’d have liked the scene in Heaven to be more surreal.
The various plots of the disparate characters overlap as we are shown images of the period. Apocaliptic fears as the millennium approaches, political confrontations, concerns about personal and national identity, the responsibilities that we have for others, what our part should be in the shaping the world, corruption, denial, intolerance – the themes prevalent at the time all play their roles. The play is set in the eighties but many of the themes seem very relevant today.
Verdict: a production not to miss.