Tony Kushner's epic 'gay fantasia on national themes' gets the warm, thoroughly human production it deserves
It’s difficult to overstate the significance to LGBTQI theatregoers of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. When it premiered in Melbourne at MTC’s Russell St theatre in 1993 (just a year after its American premiere), the AIDS epidemic was very much an ongoing and deadly concern and, after a decade of government inaction and societal ambivalence, the emotions of gay men in particular were still incredibly raw. Here was a play that not only spoke to and about the generation that had just stared its own mortality in the face, but it envisioned a way forward through and out of grief. For those who remember that production, this revival is an incredibly moving reminder of where we’ve been; for those coming to the work for the first time, it will surely be a fascinating and galvanising experience.
Kushner subtitled his two-part play a ‘gay fantasia on national themes’, and it’s a brilliant descriptor. Determinedly fanciful – with its freewheeling merging of fictional and nonfictional characters, its scattergun references to high and low culture, the constant interruption from the spectral and the metaphysical – it nevertheless managed to make incisive and sweeping commentary on the state of the nation. Given that the state of that nation is even more unhinged and bilious now than in the Reagan era in which the play is set, this production’s relevance is so tangible it feels like prescience.
Part 1 is titled Millennium Approaches, and taps into the sense of dread a community feels when it is barrelling towards the bleakest of futures. Part 2 is called Perestroika – literally, “restructuring” – a more complex, almost obtuse title that nonetheless captures something of the play’s architecture. It opens immediately after the conclusion of the first part, and initially feels like Kushner is just moving his characters around like pieces on a chessboard. By the end, however, the audience comes to see the bigger picture: all movement, both psychological and physical, is life-affirming; when faced with horror and cruelty, stasis is death and movement is a form of resistance.
The play takes place from 1985 to 1986, leaping from Washington to Salt Lake City to New York with detours to heaven and Antarctica, and while it is epic in scope, it actually focuses on a tight, if disparate, group of people. At the dark centre is the real-life figure of Roy Cohn (Brian Lipson), the infamous lawyer who in the 1950s helped Senator Joseph McCarthy prosecute suspected Communist sympathisers in the House Un-American Activities Committee. That he also systematically targeted gay men in those trials, while himself being gay, made him the detested personification of right wing hypocrisy to the gay rights movement that followed, and Kushner pulls no punches in his depiction of a man gleefully devoid of human decency.
The moral and temperamental inverse of Roy is Prior Walter (Grant Cartwright), a recently diagnosed AIDS patient who begins to suspect he’s losing his faculties. When his impossibly neurotic and self-absorbed boyfriend Louis (Simon Corfield) walks out on him, unable to stand the scent of mortality, Prior is visited first by two antecedents, “prior Prior Walters”, and then by an angel (Margaret Mills, recreating her role from the original Melbourne production).
The third strain deals with Joe Pitt (Caleb Alloway) and his wife Harper (Emily Goddard), Mormons acutely aware of their failures in the eyes of God. Joe is working for Roy, struggling with his latent homosexuality and trying to manage Harper’s valium addiction. When he meets Louis, by now resigned to his own moral turpitude, the cracks in the marital relationship fissure.
Director Gary Abrahams, whose talent for text-heavy theatre was evidenced by a fine adaptation of Thérèse Raquin for his company Dirty Pretty Theatre, conducts the grand narrative with great sensitivity and warmth. The simple but flexible set (Dann Barber), with its tatty drapery and peeling framework, alludes to the squalor of its characters’ situations, but it’s also ingeniously capable of moments of grandeur and spectacle. Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen’s lighting design is rich and multifaceted, directly invoking Kushner’s wish that the play reveal its theatrical hardware but still wow us with its effects.
Most impressive of all, in keeping with this play about the excess and range of human relationship, is the flawless ensemble of actors. From Helen Morse’s severe Ethel Rosenberg and bewildered Mrs Pitt to Dushan Philips’ stately and dignified Belize, each actor commits totally to every aspect of their role, and the result is a production that feels capable of virtually anything. Lipson is towering and terrifying as the hideous Roy, his fingers forever twitching, his mouth gaping and then suddenly snapping shut. His fierce battle with AIDS is both grotesque and strangely admirable. Cartwright is heartbreakingly good as the beleaguered Prior, holding desperately to life even as it ebbs inevitably from him. Alloway is perfect as the fresh-faced but inwardly tortured Joe, and Corfield pushes the irksome and pathetic Louis right to the edge of the audience’s sympathy without sacrificing his humanity. Mills is at turns gentle and impervious, while Goddard – who seems born for the role of Harper – pours her whole body into the character’s despair and awakening. She’s so good she often threatens to walk off with the whole play.
That she doesn’t is testament to the skill and virtuosity of the entire cast, not to mention Abrahams’ command of the shifting registers that Kushner’s script employs. Hallucinatory scenes are grounded in rough humour and long passages of political theory fly by with dazzling speed and erudition. In the intimate space of fortyfivedownstairs, where the actors are so close you could touch them, this grand and loquacious play is searingly relevant and contemporary. Roy Cohn worked for Donald Trump when Trump was starting out, and in a world that sees transgendered people kicked out of the military and our own leaders play with the lives of gay people for political sport, this production couldn’t have come at a better time. Progress can always be reversed, and the angel seems to be speaking directly to our age when she tells us that, contrary to our belief in our own civilising momentum, that it’s only now that “the great work begins”.