Approaching Millennium

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

When I was unclear that I would get to see Angels in America live, I bought a ticket for a live relay of Part One. Part Two I was uncertain about, given it clashes with the Clarke Award — for that matter I was going to have to give up the Thursday night of the Kent Beer Festival to see Part One. But even when I did get to see Part One and Two, I decided to rewatch.

Hey Universe, I am really bad at taking the hint.

I still need to do a proper read of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses Concerning History” to work out where the Angel of History fits into the play — it is indeed an influence — and for that matter I need to think about Roland Barthes’ account of Jacob and the Angel. For that matter, a read of the script — which I would have bought at the National if the book was more prominent than three copies at the till.

I’m still a little quaking that the last thing I’d seen there was Arcadia and must have been at about the same time as the original play’s production.

So how does the play hold up on second viewing?

Recap: at the funeral for Louis’ grandmother his boyfriend Prior tells him he has HIV and Louis isn’t sure he can stay with him. Louis, a word processor, is found crying in the men’s washroom by Joe Pitt. Joe, a clerk and a Mormon, has been offered a job by Roy Cohn. He isn’t sure he wants it, because of the impact on his wife, Harper, who is having a nervous breakdown in their apartment. This is in part because Joe is hiding his true sexuality — which Louis has clocked. Meanwhile, Cohn has his own HIV diagnosis and is facing a disbarment hearing for corruption, and Prior is hospitalised.

In the meantime I have seen the rest of the frankly barking thriller/melodrama Paula and made the connection, Denise Gough, to the actress playing Harper. This makes the sense of ordinary woman who has lost her mind a bit deeper and richer — although I still fear it is underwritten.

What else changes? There was more doubling of the actors in the videoed version, or, rather, it was more noticeable because of the close ups. I eventually twigged it was Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey as foppish and medieval Priors when I saw the production live, but the close ups got me there more quickly. (Not that you don’t take them as distinct “people”). For that matter, I thought that they didn’t appear until Part Two.

Whilst the play is never exactly realist, the growing sense of the Fantastic is clearer. There’s also — despite knowing the ending — a real sense of the impending death of Prior and the emotion you suspect that will unlock. I think the comedy got more laughs this time, but perhaps the distinction between a matinee and evening performance. Lane as Cohn seems bigger — but still no Pacino. Good.

Some of the theatrical business does not quite work — I think there are two sequences where parallel scenes play out and overlap and in the filmed version it felt more confusing. Theatre space is less concrete than film space. In Part Two there are moments where you get to see the full extent of the stage (down to a visible exit sign) and I’d forgotten there was a similar moment here. There were a couple of moments of theatrical business with Prior I was looking out for, and you can’t spot the join of when the coup de théàtre is pulled off.

The Angel works perfectly live — if you’ve seen Warhorse you know that disbelief can be suspended — but I’m a bit more sceptical here. But then, she is only on stage very briefly.

I suspect the sheer verbosity of the script clunks a bit more — there are an awful lot of monologues, although not a lot of awful monologues. This tendency is strong in the second half, still to come. Belize still stole his scenes as African American nurse and former drag queen.

The general sense of the history of America — the waves of immigration and religious practices — is clearer on second hearing, as is the sense of the Millenium approaching. Discussions of the afterlife and rapture and apocalypse seem appropriate.

Possibly the parallels of Trump and Cohn seem stronger — but we’ve had a few more weeks of shenanigans and fake news and witch hunts. I’d forgotten Ethel Rosenberg was in this part.

I am pleased to rewatch it and recommend it — but you need to be able to stay comfortable for four hours.


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