Angels in America: how Tony Kushner's gay fantasia moved heaven and earth

Twenty-five years ago director Declan Donnellan brought Kushner’s great play about the Aids crisis to London. Its latest revival at the National is a reminder of its profundity and wicked wit

At the first run-through of the production at the National Theatre in London in 1992, someone whispered in my ear that they found Angels in America “too personal”. As Belize, the drag queen who is at the play’s heart, might have replied: “Fabulous!”

Angels in America a new staging of which opened at the same venue this week – is a great play because it takes us by the scruff of the neck and forces us to share the pain and joy of human beings interacting. Tony Kushner’s gift, which he shares with all great writers of fiction – and of history, for that matter – is a capacity to make ideas flesh. He never takes a shortcut to an idea; all is mediated by humanity. In Kushner’s play, the angels give humans erections. The angels have orgasms.

It tells of how Prior Walter, a bright thirtysomething, is diagnosed with Aids in mid-80s Manhattan. His lover, Louis, abandons him to his fate. Louis then manages to multiply his awfulness in mirrors of self-loathing. When he guiltily asks a rabbi what happens to someone who walks out on the person he loves in their time of need, the rabbi simply replies: “Why would someone do such a thing?” No fancy morals, just ordinary human puzzlement. Louis is soon replaced in Prior’s life by an Angel who crashes through the ceiling. And so ends the first part, “Millennium Approaches”, trumpeting a possibility of redemption and healing. In part two, “Perestroika”, Prior journeys to heaven only to discover that God has abandoned his angels.

Sound depressing? Well, it isn’t. The play’s passion, zaniness and wicked wit never let us sink. And by the conclusion, it feels as if the salacious, arch-conservative angel has actually done some good. It has led Prior to an awareness that he is happy to enjoy whatever life he has left. A profound gratitude seizes him as he chats to his friends sitting beneath the angel on the Bethesda fountain in Central Park.

The angel Bethesda, prophecies say, will one day reopen a sacred spring and cleanse all of us of disease. Kushner took me and my partner, Nick Ormerod, to see the statue in 1991, and it was hard not to be moved. A few months earlier, Nick and I had been on tour in Brazil with our company, Cheek By Jowl. A large package was delivered to our hotel with “National Theatre” marked on it. Out fell a huge script and a note from Richard Eyre, then the National Theatre’s director, asking us to read it. As usual, Nick read it first. After 20 minutes he was looking strangely serious, and said: “We must do this.” He hadn’t even got as far as the first interval.

When I read it later that evening, I saw exactly what he meant. This was a history in which homosexuality had no longer been made politely invisible. The words ripped off the page in a blaze of wit, rage and life. It was funny and shocking and moving and despairing and uplifting. We didn’t need to breathe it into life; it was already mad as hell and screaming like a murderous baby to be born.

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in the latest production of Angels of America at the National Theatre.
Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in the latest production of Angels of America at the National Theatre. Photograph: Jason Bell

The play is truly epic: it starts in a cemetery, where Prior first shows his lesions to Louis. We then we meet a young Mormon couple, Harper and Joe Pitt, whose marriage is drowning in pretend happiness. During the play, people will die and go to heaven; they will travel across the globe and across centuries. Nick and I felt in our element. We decided on a very simple staging that would enable scenes to follow quickly, even violently fast. We wanted the play to have that helter-skelter effect without sacrificing any clarity. Our big mission was not to let the play’s wit and irony overwhelm its human predicaments. I secretly told myself that Harper, the unloved, pill-popping wife, was the centre of the play, and that if the play wasn’t moving, then we would have failed.

Roy Cohn is the play’s presiding demon. In real life, Cohn was a wheeler-dealer attorney, a henchman to Senator Joseph McCarthy (and later Donald Trump’s lawyer); in the play he is depicted as corruption incarnate, exulting in his own awfulness throughout. Corroded with cynicism, his only redeeming characteristic is his lust for life – his own, of course. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, he has some of the play’s best lines, including the question, “Do you want to be pure, or do you want to be effective?” Some think it evil even to ask the question, and it’s a dilemma that splits the left again and again. Roy also develops Aids. But as he screams at his doctor, he isn’t gay, he is a straight guy who likes to fuck with guys, and he doesn’t have Aids, he has “liver cancer”.

It is easy now to forget that when Aids was first discovered in the US, it was a terror in the shadows; the disease that Reagan dared not name. Its cause and the way it spread were unclear. One senior US military figure even feared that a GI in the confined space of a tank might transmit it via his tears. Then the media smelled sales, and the disease exploded as a giant international hit – an opportunity for people who didn’t have sex to stop people who did. Few who saw it will ever manage to forget the early TV ad in which a faceless, beefy male figure took a hammer drill to a tombstone and carved out those four dreaded letters: AIDS.

Angels in America
Nancy Crane as the Angel and Stephen Dillane as Prior in the 1992 production of Millennium Approaches. Photograph: John Haynes Photograph: John Haynes

Plays without ideas are boring. But all ideas are dead until someone gives them flesh. Angels is full of ideas – bursting with them – but they land in our laps only because they have been vomited up by the living situation. The first words of “Perestroika” are spoken in the Hall of Deputies in the Kremlin by “the world’s oldest living Bolshevik”, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov: “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed?” At the time of the first performance, many might have answered: “Well, you are, you old Bolshevik git, and good riddance!” In Russian, perestroika means “rebuilding” or “reform”; the play ends with a warning about Gorbachev’s reforms. But the Soviet system never stopped working; in fact, it had never started working in the first place. It was always presented as an idea without blood. Now, in April 2017, Prelapsarianov’s question “Are we doomed?” makes us feel sicker, in the light of recent developments in Washington and Westminster. In Angels, Louis jokes about a shady Reaganite family who only speak to each other through their agents, not a president who screams instant propaganda through Twitter.

While I was directing The Winter’s Tale for Cheek By Jowl, I often thought of Angels. Both plays depict supernatural intervention in the affairs of humans bewildered by self-deceptions. Kushner invites us to explore the illusion he creates, and to imagine the distance between that fake world of illusion, of phantasmagoria, and the real world we live in. And we cannot see that gap with any precision until we try to see the world we live in as it is, and not as it ought to be, with our eyes scrubbed clean.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 19 August. Declan Donnellan’s production of The Winter’s Tale is at the Barbican, London EC2Y, and will be livestreamed on 19 April.


Declan Donnellan

The GuardianTramp

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