Going to see Angels in America as part of the National Theatre Live scheme allowed me to be part of one of the most talked about experiences of the summer. Angels in America, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Marianne Elliot, details the AIDs epidemic that spread throughout 1980’s America. Despite some rather disappointing aspects both part one (Millennium) and part two (Perestroika) are thoroughly enjoyable.
Both parts of the play follow different characters as they combat AIDs and the stigma around homosexuality. Prior Walter and lawyer Roy Cohn are both seen to battle AIDs and the social consequences faced by HIV sufferers in Regan era America. Louis Ironson attempts to come to terms with his boyfriend contracting AIDs and begins a relationship with a closeted Mormon Joe Pitt. Throughout the play Joe Pitt struggles with his sexuality and his valium addicted, agoraphobic wife Harper. All of this is overlaid by a stranger, more religious plot in which Prior Walter converses with angels about a prophecy. Taking place in two parts, Millennium features the beginning of each story and sets the tone of the Regan era while Perestroika brings together all the characters and storylines and focuses more on the prophecy.
Shall we start with the disappointing elements so we can quickly move onto the brilliant? Andrew Garfield playing Prior Walter was one of the most hyped characters in the play, and a major attraction for audiences. I am a fan of Garfield from his film work and was excited how he would transfer his approach to the stage. Disappointingly, the melodramatic and exaggerated characterisation of Prior Walter did not work for me. I understand that the character is one of excess, however at times this became too excessive. Being so overtly camp and frankly loud made me empathise less with the hardships the character faced. It also undermined some of the subtle acting going on during the split stage sequences. One good point about Garfield’s interpretation of the character was that in the large and ever-changing stage his presence was never lost and always drew the eye of the audience. I fully believe that Garfield in this play appeals to a lot of people and my opinions are exactly that with other people praising the performance wholly. For me this performance has not tainted Garfield’s credibility and is not a measure of his acting ability whatsoever.
Moving on to the elements of the show which were much more promising, Russell Tovey, another actor I was already aware of, proved to be outstanding. Playing Joe Pitt, a character who is coming to terms with his sexuality in light of his religion, Tovey prompts real empathy from his audience. His character’s subtle and understated moments really ground the play in the confusion that can be combined with sexuality. Tovey employs multiple roles throughout the ensemble, with his other acts proving to be more light-hearted and comic ensuring a complete difference to his main role. The same can be said for other standout actors throughout the plays such as James McArdle whose Louis Ironson is perfectly flawed to create a love hate relationship with the audience. Nathan Stewart-Jarret also brings the fabulous Belize to life with sass and immense presence.
One other aspect of the shows that must be discussed is the staging. Millennium Approaches in particular featured incredible revolving set pieces; these allow different areas of the stage to change into separate locations or to link together to create one large space. The moving aspect of this is so seamlessly executed that sometimes it is not even noticeable until the staging has switched entirely. The designer, Ian MacNeil, created minimalism to combat the complex ideas being brought forward by the text.
All in all this is a very good play, being extremely important throughout the current political climate in which all areas of the LGBT+ community are under scrutiny in America. I’d urge you to see a live performance of Angels in America as this is undoubtedly the best way to experience the plays however the run has now ended. I have no doubt that this play will be performed again in future and I am sure I will review it again when it is. Nonetheless, National Theatre live screenings are the next best option. However, when compared to the rest of the shows available this summer the frenzy surrounding Andrew Garfield could be described as undeserving.
My rating: 3.5/5
Unfortunately, ‘Angels in America’ finished its run at the National Theatre earlier this month, and so far there are no plans to move the production to another theatre.