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Angels in America

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Andrew Garfield gives an astonishing performance in Tony Kushner's hallucinatory masterpiece

Tony Kushner's landmark 'Angels in America' is a mad, eight-hour quasi-religious 'gay fantasia on national themes' that was written in response to – amongst many other things – the AIDS epidemic that was still raging upon its UK premiere at the National Theatre a quarter of a century ago.

It now stands as a canonical classic, probably the great American play of the late 20th century. But it rarely get staged, for the simple reason that the enormously long, enormously arch, symbol-drenched magical realist epic (it is in fact two long plays, 'Millennium Approaches' and 'Perestroika') borders on the unstageable. This revival, from 'Curious Incident...' and 'War Horse' director Marianne Elliott, is the NT throwing everything it has an a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The acting company is RIDICULOUS, the sort of ludicrous confluence of talent that impresses simply for the feat of harmonising their diaries, even before we've seen the acting.

I'd never been quite sure from his films whether erstwhile Spider-Man Andrew Garfield was anything special, but on stage he is absolutely stupendous as the sprawling show's nominal focal point Prior Walter, a waspish WASP who contacts AIDS, is hospitalised, gets dumped by his boyfriend Louis, and is then visited by a horny angelic bureaucrat that wants him to become its prophet. Garfield steams into the part with savage wit, burning intensity and total commitment - it is a weird, taxing, hilarious role, and he owns it, the best thing here, one of the performances of the year.

James McArdle is great as the infuriating Louis, a sensitive, moralistic liberal derailed by his almost fanatical self-absorption. Major Broadway star Nathan Lane devours the scenery gloriously as vicious, closeted lawyer Roy. Russell Tovey brings a touch of everyman innocence to confused Mormon Republican Joe. The incomparable Denise Gough makes everything a lot weirder as his drugged out, volcanically angry wife Harper. And Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is wonderful as Belize, the flamboyant black nurse who perhaps marks the only sane member of the bunch.

But does 'Angels in America' in 2017 represent anything more than a starry folly? Clearly some of the context has changed, especially regarding AIDS. But even so, the play was always looking back (to the Reagan era), and in its strange, half magical world the specifics of the characters' fears are not entirely important. Elliott's production - with a remarkable, flexible set from Ian MacNeil - is suffused with rumbling existential dread, a sense that some catastrophic event is just over the neon streaked horizon. In 2017, it feels entirely in tune - its press performance came on the day Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, and its view of an America fractured along lines of gender, race, wealth and political outlook has scarcely dated.

Moreover it's not just about politics, but the audacity of its form. Its doomy, sardonic surrealism remains quite unlike almost anything else: it’s as much a trip as a drama. There is a constant WTF factor to brilliant scenes that could be their own plays and almost feel like they’re being lobbed out of Kushner’s imagination on shuffle: you could cut the wonderful scene in which Lewis jabbers through a long, spectacularly ill-advised monologue on race relations to Belize, or the scene in which a wasted Harper and Prior freak out over an animatronic Mormon family, or the angry monologue from 'the last living Bolshevik’, and not really alter the core story, but it would be a lot less weird and fun.

What Elliott really brings is efficiency and discipline, the master general’s power to marshal and guide innumerable elements, to allow the audience a route though the boundless wilds of Kushner's imagination. We may not see this play again for a decade or more, and Elliott and her team have not wasted their shot at it.

'Angels in America' is sold out, but there will be five special ballots held to distribute more tickets for the run. See the National Theatre website for more details.


£15-£65, two-play day tickets £30-£130. Part One 3hr 30min; Part Two 4hr; (each has two intervals)
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