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Angels in America, National Theatre, review: ‘Politically provoking, hauntingly memorable and ultimately life-affirming’

PUBLISHED: 08:30 09 May 2017

Andrew Garfield (Prior) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Angels in America - Millennium Approaches. Picture: Helen Mayba

Andrew Garfield (Prior) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Angels in America - Millennium Approaches. Picture: Helen Mayba

Archant

Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane Russell Tovey star in Tony Kushner’s flawed state of the nation masterpiece, which proves a prescient play for our troubled times

You wouldn’t expect all seven hours of Tony Kushner’s 25-year-old “gay fantasia on national themes” to be compelling, but despite its imperfections, this epic two plays-in-a-day is politically provoking, hauntingly memorable, and ultimately life-affirming.

Set in 1985, the tauter first play captures the pre-millennial mood of impending apocalypse and the grief and rage of New York’s blighted gay community. Inditing Reagan’s neglectful inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic, it also touches on immigration, religion and the terrible cost of repression.

Ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall Part II’s Perestroika (openess) sorely needs pruning yet its impressive imaginative reach and black humour is often matched by flashes of directorial brilliance from Marianne Elliott.

That lines about the death of liberalism and a new American politics chime heavily with today is compounded by the sweary, abrasive Communist-baiting presence of The Donald’s ex lawyer and mentor Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane on top form).

Closeted Cohn has AIDS, or liver cancer as he insists and, visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg whom he sent to the chair but by no-one else, he’s finally also a victim of what another character calls internalised oppression.

His protégée (a slow burn effective performance from Russell Tovey) Mormon lawyer Joe is also in painful denial and the ripples of damage spread to his pill-popping lonely wife Harper (a bitterly damaged Denise Gough) and sexually repressed mother.

Their counterpoint is drag performer Prior Walter, a rivetingly brilliant Andrew Garfield, whose effete affectations mask his fear and vulnerability. Ravaged by illness but ever true to himself he haunts Part Two with his burning desire to live.

Andrew McCardle is the self-pitying, guilt-ridden partner Louis who flees in terror at his illness, while loyal friend and nurse Belize movingly tends both Prior and the monstrous Cohn, underlining the play’s central theme of compassion and human connection.

Ian MacNeil’s revolving, receding set can leave performers marooned in the Lyttleton space. And despite their visually stunning incarnation involving puppeteers and movement artists it’s ironically the Godless titular angels who are most bewildering and obscure. But Kushner’s flawed state of the nation masterpiece proves a prescient play for our troubled times.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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