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Review: Angels in America, at National Theatre (Lyttleton)

'Gay fantasia on national themes' is a passionate portrait of prejudice, corruption and privilege

19 May, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Angels in America. Photo: Helen Maybanks

TONY Kushner called his pair of plays “a gay fantasia on national themes”. Written towards the end of the Reagan years, they looked both backwards and forwards: the Aids crisis of the 80s and a kind of millennial apocalypse.

Part One: Millennium Approaches opens with an aged rabbi looking back at the history of Jewish immigration. Part Two: Perestroika starts with an old Bolshevik warning against abandoning one system before you’ve devised a new theory for a replacement society.

Prior is a gay man with HIV. His Jewish lover Louis can’t handle it and walks out. Joseph, (Russell Tovey) chief clerk in the law office Louis works in, is a Mormon who can’t face up to his queerness while his unsatisfied wife Harper (Denise Gough) gets hooked on Valium.

Meanwhile Joe is the protégé of power-broker lawyer Roy Cohn, a man who admits sleeping with men but declares that doesn’t make him homosexual: faggots are weak folk.

It is a picture of prejudice, corruption and privilege that looks back to the Middle Ages and into the future.

Though Cohn is here part of a fiction he is a character from real life: one of Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunters, the man who put the Rosenbergs in the electric chair and, until Aids overcame him (though he declared it was liver cancer), Donald Trump’s lawyer. There’s déjà vu in reverse going on here.

It’s a passionate play that takes huge risks with its wild inventions but holds through its theatricality and sheer honest conviction.

Director Marianne Elliott and designer Ian MacNeil keep it full of surprises. Spider-Man Andrew Garfield’s stricken, frightened Prior isn’t played for sympathy, he’s sometimes hysteric, and James Ardle’s Louis is spineless, but they make you understand their predicament.

Roy Cohn is a big-mouthed monster but Nathan Lane also makes him exceedingly funny and shows fears that call for compassion. A high point is when Susan Brown’s Ethel Rosenberg sings Kaddish for him.

Angels in America is sold out except for day seats and tickets available through a ballot on the theatre’s website. Fight for them – this is a landmark production.

UNTIL AUGUST 19
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