Tony Kushner’s 1990 two part epic Angels in America (part one: Millennium Approaches, part two: Perestroika), subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ no less, receives a bright production at the Lyric Hammersmith, courtesy of bold young director Daniel Kramer (Bent, Hair, Woyzeck). Kushner’s play is legendary (with a lauded NT production in 1993), but I’d never seen it either onstage or on television. I can certainly understand why the play was so resonant in the early 1990’s, but now the themes seem overdone and certainly overexposed. Whilst I feel awful saying this, particularly as AIDS, central to the plot, is still an ever present problem in the US and UK, AIDS now seems like a problem for the developing world (that seems to be the view society has come to anyway, a dangerously self-satisfied though that may be). Now AIDS comes up in discussion only when referring to the blight in Africa, rather than a lack of provision for domestic sufferers as was the case in the 80’s, when the virus was all but ignored by the Regan administration for years; a sense of dispossession by society of domestic gay AIDS victims doesn’t seem on many agendas in 2007. This is thanks in part to the radical changes in society, especially in Britain, over the intervening years; we now have gay and lesbian minister in the government, and many children are even able to come out at school, discussions on sexuality and sexual health have also become much more acceptable. Imagine that happening under John Major and a homophobic Conservative Government in 1992 when the gay age of consent was still 21 (though of course inequalities still vividly exist in today’s society, including anti gay bullying in schools).
The problem with this particular production of the play (apart from the verbosity of the play itself), is that it innately seems to be striving for modernity and current relevance, rather than being a piece reflecting the times in which it was set (the mid 1980’s). For example the liberal protognists hatred for Reagan could quite easily be transferred to George W. Bush, but their politics seems somehow anachronistic to me. But of course this is not a play specifically intended for us; it is a study of the American psyche, even if it is in the atypical guise of raging queers in NYC. To fully appreciate Angels, you have to have an understanding of American politics and culture of the time, and also of the figures that loom large in the national consciousness of America. I doubt that many British schoolchildren, or the vast majority of adults for that matter, have heard of Roy Cohn (less so with Senator McCarthy) or know about the execution of the Rosenberg’s and the controversy that still continues to this day. Cohn is wonderfully portrayed by the superlative Greg Hicks as an immoral bully who cares for little except his own power and prestige; a closet homosexual, his death from AIDS in 1986 is excruciatingly portrayed, not only the overwhelming physical pain, but his (real life) stockpiling of rationed experimental drugs which he kept under lock and key at his hospital bedside. Cohn also gains an interesting conscience, or more accurately a ghostly tormentor, in the guise of Ethel Rosenberg (whom he helped to prosecute), who laughs merrily at his dire situation. It was in these, sober and emotional scenes that I felt most moved and indeed disgusted, particularly at Cohn’s repudiation of homosexuality, revealing himself as not a man of genuine conviction, but an actor in life terrified of being a minority, or to loose his beloved clout and connections.
However the main thrust of the plot is about a young closeted gay republican attorney (Cohn’s protégé) falling for a liberal Jewish legal clerk, who in turn has just left his boyfriend because he can’t cope with his AIDS and the physical suffering he sees. They are both running away from various responsibilities and truths, and the Republican lawyer is particularly stricken by his lifelong denial of homosexuality to placate the values of his strict Mormon religion. The play can range from brilliant and significant to hysterical and over written, particularly in the second play, where Angels, prophecy and fantasy take hold onstage, some of which can be effective, much of which can seem repetitive or pointless. Indeed I thought Kushner would give us a comprehensively tragic ending. But of course this is an American epic, and grand opera it ain’t, so we have to have some kind of redemption, or at least the possibility of it, for everybody. Even Cohn who dies in agony has (semi) respectful death rites performed over his wasted body, helped along to heaven (or hell) with a Jewish prayer, quite movingly sung by Rosenberg and the liberal gay Jew, solemnly observed by a muscle bound queer black nurse in skin tight clothing (though I suspect we are to infer their righteousness by the granting of this last act, than any redemption on the part of Cohn’s soul). Kushner to the end telling us that action and not passive acceptance is the way forward, it may not be easy, but struggle and mess is better than stagnation and repression.
The cast of 8 work very hard, they all play multiple roles (as the playwright intended) and the running time of the two parts was over seven hours, but nobody (well, the actors anyway) seemed to be flagging at the Sunday marathon performances I saw (this was at the end of a full week comprising of 9 performances!). Apart from Hicks, Ann Mitchell as an unusually understanding Mormon mom and Jo Stone-Fewings as her son deserve praise for their extremely natural and intelligent acting. Kramer also deserves praise for his vigorous direction of such an ambitious project, but some vigorous cutting would probably do the play the world of good. However Angels in America is still a worthwhile double evening out.