Angels in America, now on-demand, is more relevant than ever
In the same month, Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin became the world’s most talked about TV show, with the National Theater making its own dramatization of the AIDS crisis, Angels in America, available to watch on demand for the premiere. time.
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Both begin in the 1980s, just as the virus took hold in the gay community. But while Davies focuses on the terrible waste of vibrant young lives, playwright Tony Kushner’s two-part seven-and-a-half-hour opus uses him as a prism through which to see… well, everything really. Politics, life, death, religion, justice, desire, ecological collapse, the nature of existence. Across a handful of lives in New York City, Kushner pulls on the fabric of American life and finds it unsatisfying.
What’s remarkable to watch today, 30 years after its debut in 1991, is both how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. While the AIDS crisis has been largely brought under control – at least if you’re Western and wealthy – the politics of the play seem remarkably prescient.
Angels in America is a surreal, amorphous thing. Its two halves – “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” – are designed to function independently, and even within these halves, loosely connected scenes follow each other, a series of vignettes that audiences are supposed to fit into one. all unified.
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The appearance of Roy Cohn, the actual chief lawyer for Senator Joseph McCarthy, seems almost prophetic. The avowed communist outright and hateful right-wing winger, the closet gay lawyer was Donald Trump’s mentor, representing him even when the Justice Department accused him of discriminating against African Americans at his Brooklyn properties.
Kushner was fascinated by what Reaganism meant to America, what this super-conservative, macho politics said about leading a nation. And after experiencing a Trump presidency that deliberately recalled these policies, the answer seems to be “it’s so many worse than you thought ”.
Andrew Garfield leads the outstanding cast as Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS who sees visions of angels as he lies about what we assume to be his deathbed in the hospital. He is abandoned by his politically active but emotionally stunted boyfriend Lou (James McArdle), who falls into a relationship with Joe (Russell Tovey), a married and conflicted Mormon, who happens to be a confidant of Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane). , himself lying in an AIDS service with an illness, he insists that it is liver cancer.
We navigate these overlapping lives just as we move between dream and reality. Scenes in which the characters discuss politics with the rapid flow of an Aaron Sorkin script turn into visions filled with explosive verses reminiscent of Jacobean tragedy, or moments of calm where ghosts return to haunt the living. Sometimes the characters enter what they call the “threshold of revelation,” a space where overlapping scenes allow them to interact through the void. Other times, they get lost in shared hallucinations of celestial beings, with winged creatures held aloft by shadowy puppeteers.
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If there is a unifying thesis, it is the danger of entropy. In Kushner’s play, the highly gendered angels, an analogue of men left to die of AIDS, have themselves been forsaken by God. As man wastes the natural world – a theme poetically explored in the Valium-induced psychoses experienced by Joe’s wife, Harper – the angels demand that we all stop. Stop moving, stop evolving, stop the inevitable ecological catastrophe that our very existence promises to bring about.
Prieur’s revelation is that to move – to decompose, to decompose, to die – is life, and that to reject suffering is to reject what makes us human. He wants to live, which means he will have to die.
That Kushner manages to say it all in a play that never feels dignified or preachy, that remains sharp and silly (in one scene, Cohn reluctantly pays homage to the pubic crabs who refuse to give up his scrotum) despite its length, he is a testament to what a fantastic job it is.
It also works great in NT Live format. It manages to capture the scale of director Marianne Elliott’s production, while the camera’s ability to zoom in on the action mitigates the tendency of some of the more intimate scenes to get lost a bit on Lyttelton’s expansive stage. .
As we sit in lockdown, entropy forced upon us, dissecting the aftermath of a destructive presidency as all around us rages on the effects of a new virus, I can’t think of a better time to come back to this foundational work.
• National theater at home is available now, with single titles costing from £ 5.99, a monthly subscription for £ 9.99 or an annual subscription for £ 99.99.