The Stubborn Absurdity of Hope

Tony Kushner: Angels in America, National Theatre, London (Director: Marianne Elliott)

By Sascha Krieger

„A gay fantasia on national themes“: the subtitle of Tony Kushner’s two-part take on an America at a watershed moment of history – between AIDS epidemic and end of the Cold War – hints at the scope of what is arguably one of the most significant plays of the 1990s. Opening in 1993 and 1994, respectively, the wounds are still visible, the pain still fresh. The death of certainties, the dread of an approaching apocalypse – the threat of a nuclear war was still real in 1985 when the play takes place while the environmental threats such as the vanishing ozone layer started getting mass attention – found expression in Kushner’s panorama of lost people questioning their identities, drifting along in the search for meaning, lashing out against the loss of the old world order. Built around a young man battling with AIDS, the loosely and sometimes bizarrely connected personnel are like explorers in a hostile and unknown universe who have to find their way mostly without help while longing for the closeness and warmth and support they all seem to have lost. With the arrival of the supernatural, an Angelic sphere that’s lost its God, the view widens to the universal. Humankind has to find their own way, no God will help, the angels being as lost as those they mean to protect.

Image: Helen Maybanks

What can this 8-hour monster tell us today? Is it a haunting reminder of a world contemplating its own demise, a moment when history changed, and some of it even for the better, but also one in which hard-gained progress, such as slowly growing acceptance of homosexuality, was threatened? Or can it say something about today, a time hardly less confusing, less frightening, less threatening, less potentially apocalyptic? In the case of Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre production the answer is: both.Elliott and her set designer Ian MacNeil construct a disintegrating world. In the first part, „Millennium Approaching“, the stage is dominated by semi-abstract fragments of buildings who form offices and living rooms and hospital rooms but constantly rotate, dissolving the spaces they’ve just created to form new ones that are as fleeting and unstable as their predecessors. As AIDS spreads and identities are questions the seemingly secure world becomes unstable ground. By the second part, „Perestroika“, it has dissolved. Fragments of reality appear and disappear, are fleetingly constructed as bare fragments, carried in and out by shadowy figures, agents of the nightmare the world has become. Even The Angel (an astonishing Amanda Lawrence) is a dark, disheveled creature, ragged, fragmented herself, a symbol of destruction, not a harbinger of hope. Similarly, the angelic headquarter turns out to be a ridiculous vision of a 1960s sci-fi set. No, if redemption comes, it must be found elsewhere.

Whereas the „angels“ preach the gospel of activity (and are indeed agents of Reagan’s backward-looking America), it is up to the Beckett-like lost souls known as humans to find a way through the darkening of the vanishing world of certainty that is part 1 into the void from which a new world, a new hope can be constructed. So, with all the philosophical baggage, the theorising, the spiritual level, the weaving in of political history from Socialist dreams to McCarthyism, the excursions into religious doubt and minority emancipation – apart from gay rights the play deals with immigrant and women’s rights as well – the heart and soul of the play and its hint at a silver lining lies within the characters. Marianne Elliott knows this and gives her cast plenty of room. Andrew Garfield as young gay man Prior Walter, diagnosed with AIDS and fighting against certain death, is confidently stubborn, resiliently rebellious fighter for survival, flamboyantly camp, achingly vulnerable, boyishly playful in his defence of life. He inserts plenty of humour into the darkness, breaks down repeatedly but refuses to bow down. He’s humanity ploughing on against all odds.

Denise Gough as Harper, the lost Mormon wife searching for a way apart from her gay husband is his counter-part. Confused and drifting, she, too, has a stubborn toughness about her, a dry humour pumping new blood through her veins when she is about to vanish. They anchor the play so that their meeting in a shared bizarre dream is the epicentre of this double act, touching, emotional, wildly funny, eccentrically absurd. The rest of the cast fits in brilliantly: Nathan Lane is a fantastic Roy Cohn, the corrupt right-wing lawyer (a real figure: prosecutor of the Rosenbergs, aide of McCarthy, later adviser to Donald Trump) dying from AIDS, who explains memorably that he cannot be gay because homosexuals are people with „zero clout“. The power game that’s at the heart of every form of discrimination doesn’t live just in his words but in every fibre of his provocatively aggressive character. James McArdle is a fine Louis Ironson, Prior’s partner who deserts him when he cannot handle his lover’s disease – pretentious, vulnerable, confused, desperate, yet ultimately just a lost soul looking for meaning. He is often the source as well as the but of the funniest jokes, frequently ridiculous but always human.

Russell Tovey’s finely balance Mormon Republican discovering he’s gay and battling with the disappearance of all he thought certain, Susan Brown as his mother, conservative, strict, yet ultimately a drily accepting loving soul, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, drag queen turned night nurse, an emotionally and intellectually rich counterpart to Cohn and Ironson, the flamboyant voice of reason complete the stellar cast that shares additional roles such as a wise and sarcastic rabbi, the world’s oldest revolutionary or Prior’s hilarious ancestors of the same name. In Marianne Elliott’s production, Tony Kushner’s sprawling, ridiculous, absurd and outrageous panorama of the child-like creatures we call humans is astonishingly present. While never betraying its time of origin, paying a moving tribute to a lost decade and all its forgotten, it speaks to us directly, our instinct for survival, our ability to overcome, our power to change the world for the better. Change which – as we can see every single day – is constantly under threat. Yet, as long as there’s life there’s hope. And in this stunning 8-hour production there is plenty of both.

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