“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not all,” a character tells the audience in the final scene of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, currently playing at the National Theatre in London. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward.” It’s 25 years since the premiere of this monumental play – an epic in two parts, running to about eight hours in all – and this cautiously optimistic epilogue seems rather quaint in 2017. Kushner does give these lines to Louis, who has been prone throughout the play to make sweeping and naïve pronouncements, so it’s not as straightforwardly pollyannaish as all that. But still I felt a nagging sense that everything was being rather neatly tidied away at the end of the story, or a question of whether there should be an ending at all.
The story of how the establishment denied the AIDS crisis – a kind of war against its own citizens – cannot be retold enough
Partly this is context, and perspective. The play is set largely in 1985, at the height of the AIDS crisis: the political establishment is in denial at best (President Reagan was still largely ignoring the “gay plague”, and the Christian right actively celebrating it), and the fear and anger of those suffering it is at its peak. Effective treatment is in its infancy; for most, AIDS is a death sentence. That’s shown movingly and scarily in scenes where Prior Walter – an incredible performance from Andrew Garfield – descends with terrifying speed into incontinent, bedridden suffering, screaming at Louis not to touch him for fear of infection from his spilled blood. It’s the righteous anger of ACT UP’s Silence=Death campaigns and Keith Haring’s frantic jiving figures, of David Wojnarowicz’s art (Close to the Knives, his memoir of the crisis, has been recently reissued) and his life – after he died of AIDS, Wojnarowicz’s ashes were scattered on the lawn of the White House. The story of how the establishment denied the AIDS crisis – a kind of war against its own citizens – cannot be retold enough, and Angels in America is an important part of the cultural history of that time.
In two parts – “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” – Angels in America follows the interactions of a disparate group of characters in New York. Having attended the funeral of a friend who’s died of AIDS, Prior reveals his own diagnosis to his lover of four years, Louis (James McArdle, either doing some overly naturalistic grasping for words or slightly unsure of some of his lines). Elsewhere, young Mormon legal clerk Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey, fulfilling what’s surely a contractual obligation that he appear nude yet again) receives a job offer from his influential and rancorous boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) – a chance to move to Washington and “be effective”, an offer he has to discuss with his depressive wife Harper (Denise Gough). Secretly, Roy too has been diagnosed with AIDS, which coincides with the prospect of his being disbarred for corruption. And once all this has been established and set moving, an angel crashes through the ceiling.
That angelic arrival is achieved simply, with two great flashes of light and the angel carried in, wings vast as an albatross’s, on six black-clad figures who scurry her along as though she’s borne along by New York cockroaches. This is a version loyal to Kushner’s directive that the staging be relatively simple: a lovely device in the opening part uses three revolving circular “rooms” in which the various strands are set, and it’s rather a shame when these are withdrawn and the set gets sparser as the stories overlap: rooms are later suggested by wireframe diagrams made from neon tubing, and there’s a clever arrangement whereby Roy Cohn’s hospital room rises from the stage floor, like glimpses into the underworld. Other elements are more peculiar: a mysterious metallic scaffolding that looms in the background throughout – perhaps an aerial map of San Francisco or Heaven – doesn’t ever do very much.
Those revolving rooms have to disappear, because as the play progresses, its couples break up and start to get matched and mismatched in new pairings. Soon Harper is hallucinating an encounter with Prior (whom she has never met: “What are you doing in my hallucination?” “I’m not in your hallucination! You’re in my dream!”), Louis has encountered and hooked up with Joe, and Prior’s ex-lover, the nurse (and an ex-ex drag queen) Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, excellent) is caring for Roy Cohn and discovering that the great influencer has managed to secure a supply of the experimental and very scarce anti-AIDS drug AZT.
It’s possible that it would be a better play if there were no angels in Angels in America
These pairings power the play, and are reflected in Kushner’s instruction that the small cast double up in various roles. The conceit also lets a small cast show off how big in talent it is. The marvellous Susan Brown, for instance, plays variously a rabbi, a doctor, an angel, Joe Pitt’s mother, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg haunting Roy Cohn (who sent her to the electric chair). The effect is both dense and freewheeling: you never know quite who’ll encounter who next, and what direction this will take the play in. Best of all, it affords Nathan Lane the chance to steal the show twice over: once as a ranting, spittle-flecked, repellent but fascinating Roy Cohn, and once more as a prancing fop of the eighteenth century who visits Prior in dreams. Only Denise Gough – a megastar in the making, so captivating in Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places, Things in 2015 – has less to do here than one might wish: while her scenes with Tovey as Joe Pitt’s confused and frightened wife are passionate and believable, much of the time she’s relegated to one of the play’s couple of surreal dreamscapes, wandering a snowstrewn Antarctica conjured by her Valium-addled imagination.
The other major surreal or unreal scene is, regrettably, the other point at which Angels in America strays from the feeling of honesty and truthfulness that it’s built up. This is the setpiece, late in the second half, in which Prior enters Heaven to find its angels in disarray, made ineffectual by God’s departure. The language here becomes denser and more selfconsciously poetic and, compared to the human rage and human comedy elsewhere, it all feels a bit false and mannered. “There are no angels in America,” Louis declares at one stage, and – although the context is another of the tirades Kushner uses to lampoon misguided naïve liberalism, suggesting Louis may be as wrong about this as he is about his denial that America has a race problem – I started wondering what would happen if you subtracted the supernatural from Angels in America. You’d lose the ultimate conclusion that in the absence of both an overseeing deity and a supportive political class it’s up to individuals to seize responsibility and force change, keep the world turning forwards. And you’d lose the incredible, iconic cliffhanger of “Millennium Approaches”, in which the angel crashes through Prior’s apartment ceiling and declares, as he cowers in his sickbed, “The great work begins!” But really, write a moment like that into your play, everything afterwards is going to be a letdown. It’s possible that it would be a better play if there were no angels in Angels in America.
Another pairing: even in its most harrowing scenes of illness and anger, Angels in America is a properly funny play, too. It’s very quotable: I first read the plays 20 years ago and certain lines immediately take up in the memory. I’ll never, for instance, hear the American national anthem without thinking of Belize’s acerbic remark that its writer “set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it”. This performance gets big laughs throughout, to the point where the audience response can interrupt the pacing. My favourite moment of the play has Prior quoting Blanche Dubois’ “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, but this line gets such a great response that it deprives Mrs Pitt’s brilliant riposte of some of its whiplash swiftness.
Humour and heart, hope and hate: only towards the end, as things are wrapping up, does this careful balancing start to skew a little towards the pat. As a quartet of characters – a ragtag alliance of non-WASPy archetypes: Jewish, gay, black, female – addresses the audience in that final scene, they seem to sum up a less incandescently raging play than the one we’ve been watching. The play’s conclusion is far fluffier than what’s come before: Prior makes a near-miraculous near-recovery and throws off the black cape he’s worn throughout most of “Perestroika”, his own haunting. Meanwhile, the death of the bogeyman hypocrite Roy Cohn seems to stand in for the impending demise of Reaganite politics – what Cohn has earlier, approvingly termed “the end of liberalism”. Here, history has played its own cruel joke on Angels in America. Roy Cohn, a real-life monster, was sometime advisor to the failed businessman who would, in time, ascend to the office of the US president. There are no angels in America, but no shortage of devils. C