Theatre in Wales

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Epic But Drama

Perestroika: Angels in America Part 2

National Theatre Live , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , July-31-17
Perestroika: Angels in America Part 2 by National Theatre Live Gore Vidal in his essays from time to time quoted a man he called the Wise Hack. The source whom he never named was a dandyish Hollywood veteran in his eighties who had seen it all. Wales too has a few veterans who have seen it all from close-up and for a long time. Let the observer be called the Wise Wales-Watcher. Surprisingly, in a venerable drinking-hole once frequented by the actor Edward Kean, I found myself defending the art of Wales. Edinburgh again in 2017 is platform for a vibrant dozen or more shows from Wales. It was not the smaller project-funded scene that dismayed the Wise Watcher but the big stuff, all scale without emotion or impact. The Wise Wales-Watcher came to mind in seeing the National Theatre of England's revival of Tony Kushner's epic up there in digital form on the screen.

Three aspects jump out. The first is that it is a good start when theatre is about something that matters. Sheridan Morley was at the first production a quarter-century back. His opening line, written for the Spectator, punched it out. “At a time when our leading home-made dramatists are still on the run from anything which might remotely touch on the 1990s we should continue to salute Tony Kushner.” Scrutinise the theatre budgets in Wales and calculate how much is consumed by smiley-happy nostalgia retro-festivals. Look then too to the ones that have made an impact. I don't know which of “Iphigenia in Splott”, “A Regular Little Houdini” or “Hiraeth” takes first place in number of performances and audience size. They are very different but they all start with being about something that matters.

“You never swim in the same river twice” said Heraclitus at the dawn of Greek philosophy. By extension you never see the same play twice. A fellow audience member aged thirty was there to talk it over in the two intervals. She was not seeing quite what I was seeing. That was in part because the revival was revisit to a play I had seen first time around. But more crucially its world in time was my time. Men died prematurely by the thousands. Although Kushner is in the USA his play is evocation of the same time in London. The deaths were proportionately a London thing. All at once the interval between 1967 and the hedonism of Heaven came to feel all too brief before the arrival of the hell of epidemic.

The conclusion of the play is nurse Belize's removal of a stache of AZT to save his friend Prior Walter. To those for whom it is history the interval between recognition of a new disease in 1981 and the approval of AZT in 1987 seems short. It is true that six years is not long. But when it is a lived-in present it is a calamity of suffering and loss that has no end.

But theatre is not documentary. Kushner ends on a note of high emotion. Andrew Garfield's Prior leans on a stick for support but is defiantly alive. Marianne Elliott's production is class through and through. The camera can not grasp the scenic grandeur. But the history of theatre is the history of its dramatists. Four and a quarter hours is long. Kushner knows one basic of animating a script and that is to make yourself a good villain. It is a lesson across in film that the Marvel franchisers lost for a while. When they fell back on one more big-metally-thing-I'm-going-to-destroy-the-earth villain the films were flat. They got it right again with Hiddleston's Loki and Keaton's Vulture.

Villainy is one factor among several that animates “Angels in America”. There is the cross-cutting with Mormonism. The sheer formal boldness of angels, ghosts and puppets is another. But Nathan Lane's Roy Cohn is an indispensable presence, a monster on a giant and true scale but one of a complex contradiction.

Which prompts a look-back on the theatre of Wales. Villains are not that many. “Violence and Son”, which I have not seen, had a good one. “Bruised”, which I have seen, had a great stage figure in the character of Shane. Matthew Trevannion, a dramatist who demonstrated he could do the lot, now what ever happened to him?

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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