Reading a play is never the same as seeing it, no matter how deeply you read into the stage directions, actor choices or words on the page. That’s why, when I saw my local cinema was screening Angels in America at The National, with a stellar cast to boot, I was keen to see the play on stage, having only ever read it before during my degree.Quick disclaimer: Angels in America is ridiculously complex (in a good way) and so I won’t be able to do it justice here (but I’ll try anyway). It tells three interconnected stories, of people living in New York in the ‘80s; a gay couple, a high-powered lawyer and a highly dysfunctional Mormon couple.
Literally, what connects all these stories is constant crossed paths and brief encounters as well as themes of homosexuality, sickness (HIV and addiction), religion and unhappiness. Depressing as it might sound, the play is actually full of humour as it explores what it means to be human (no mean feat). This leads neatly on to the symbolic interconnectedness of the stories. One actor is responsible for so many roles and there’s plenty of gender fluidity throughout these; in my opinion, Kushner is saying we’re all the same, symbolically, no matter the physical or ideological differences we may have.
I was 100% right (in my humble opinion) to be so keen to see this production of the play. I mentioned the cast was stellar, and they are. With Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane involved, there’s no doubt that the play attracted a few massive names. But the intensity of each performance stands out and is what makes this production particularly great. Not only does each actor have to play at least 3 totally different (but of course related) characters, but they have to be in touch with so many intense, terrifying and extreme emotions. For four and a half hours a play.
Like I’ve already said, Angels in America is pretty complex, and fitting the whole of human experience into one play is pretty much impossible; something that Tony Kushner acknowledges. That’s why it’s split into two, pretty lengthy, plays.
Part One is aptly named “Millennium Approaches”. Apt, I think, because it both gives us a time frame for the play and because it pits three, in many ways, hopeless stories against a backdrop of hope; the millennium is a marker for change and new beginnings. Part Two, entitled “Perestroika”, has equal significance with ideas of rebirth and renewal jarring with harsh modernity and constant reminders of death.
The first thing that struck me was the set; a complex of revolving platforms with windows, doors and plenty of hidden places. At some points, you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, at others you have intimate access into the characters’ lives. The set also allows the complexity of the script to flow more freely with multiple scenes playing out separately but on the same stage. The neon lights around each section give the stage both a tawdry, late eighties vibe and a touch of the eerie; something that’s right at home when you get to all the mad supernatural and psychological stuff going on throughout the play.
The set changes in Part Two; while the clever proxemics and barrier like walls and ceilings are still present, the stage is opened up a lot more, I think to reflect the vastness of imagination and experience, but still emphasising that there are limits to both.
The set, the cast, the production was all incredible (if you hadn’t gathered that already), but what makes Angels in America really stand out – this production and the play itself – is the familiarity of the issues even in today’s world. Written almost 20 years ago, the themes Kushner chooses to explore are still ever-present in the 21st century and I don’t think they’ll ever stop hitting home.