Angels in America review – Kushner’s epic ‘gay fantasia’ flies again

Lyttelton, London
Gaudy and unflinching, Tony Kushner’s 90s Aids drama still resonates in this bold, starry revival directed by Marianne Elliott

You can tell when a show is bound for success. Leaking off the theatre pages, it ceases to be referred to as a play and becomes “an event”. Heaven forfend that someone should go to Angels in America because they want a piece of drama.

Yet Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” is theatrical to the very tips of its gilded wings. Flaunting, gaudy and unflinching, it does something only the stage can do: capture a piece of history and deliver it in the flesh of today. First staged at the National in 1993, this eight-hour epic is set in the New York of 1985, with Reagan in the White House and the terror of Aids at its height.

A gay man shows his lover the patches on his skin: “I am a lesionnaire.” The partner scarpers. A Mormon tries to hide his homosexuality from his wife. When he comes out to his mother, she declares he is being “ridiculous” – overreacting to the realisation that his father did not love him. It is strong, hearing this in the year that marks half a century since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. As it is to note some dismaying continuities. No nudges or winks are needed to highlight political parallels. The deeply sinister Roy M Cohn, an abrasive to the core Nathan Lane, is a central character, denying his homosexuality, boasting about having sent the Rosenbergs to their deaths: “Half the time I make it up and it still turns out to be true.” He was Donald Trump’s legal adviser.

Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Angels in America.
‘Abrasive to the core’: Nathan Lane, left, as Roy Cohn with the ‘giddily beguiling’ Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Angels in America. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Documentary resonance is a tiny part of Kushner’s freewheeling extravaganza. A fractured society is projected jaggedly in discontinuous scenes. Ian MacNeil’s design, which creates a luridly enticing Central Park from verdant fluorescent tubes, embodies this: each episode is contained in gliding boxes that do not intersect. Hallucination, illusion, self-deception and visions fuel the action.

Who better to take on its imaginative surges than Marianne Elliott, part-creator of War Horse, and the one-woman rebuttal of the idea that female directors excel not in boldness but in detail. She makes speeches crystal clear: one of the best moments is terrific James McArdle as the self-consciously Jewish lover who eloquently unleashes a flurry of reservations, self-criticism and qualification while missing the main point. She opens the stage to visual glory. To the peerless Amanda Lawrence descending as a harpy angel – with hair like a dandelion clock, and a dark scuttle of puppeteers wagging her skeletal wings. To a column of fire bursting from the floor. To a wonderfully comic mannequin Mormon family.

I wish she had taken a scythe to the garrulous second half of the play, where passages of gobbledygook are aimed like missiles at the audience: sneer at this and you are a dunce. But each major performance is meticulous. Denise Gough, powerful but nuanced in an underwritten part – a wife – makes a character bleached out with fatigue look vivid. Russell Tovey is a fine slow burner as the Mormon. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is giddily beguiling as the sympathetic nurse who snaps on surgical gloves and wit with equal facility. Andrew Garfield, the Aids patient, abandoned lover, seer and survivor, is a proselytiser, an apostle of hope. That spiralling neck, languorous glances, sharp phrases, that glimpse into another world. Angelic.

Angels in America is at the Lyttelton, London, until 19 August


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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