Theatre in Wales

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A Landmark of London's 2017 Theatre

Millennium Approaches: Angels in America Part 1

National Theatre Live , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August-29-17
Millennium Approaches: Angels in America Part 1 by National Theatre Live There are twelve weeks to run before Ratty, Toad, Snow White et al take to the stage. The year-in-theatre is fairly clear in outline. In London's theatre 2017 will have been the year of “the Ferryman”, “Angels in America”, possibly “Ink” and “Consent”, probably “the Girl from the North Country.” The last is interesting in that the cyber-comment has split down the middle. It is either the best thing going or it's “I-left-at-the-interval couldn't-stand-it.” The latter reactions were nothing to do with the production. It was all about Dylan. In fact the critics were too posh to say it- Conor McPherson has done a jukebox musical.

Marianne Elliott and the “Angels in America” revival is cause for no such ambiguity. It has awed and sold out. I am grateful for opportunity to see the version 250 miles away from the real event. It is a phenomenon. It is also subject of a very good piece of writing- along with “Rent”- by Cardiffian Emily Garside.* She ends her doctorate with the critical conclusion that there was nothing quite like it before and there has not been since.

The critics have missed a few of the most salient points. One is that the script as it is would never get near a stage in 2017. It is oratorical to a degree where tastes have changed. The scenes go on and on to a point where a dramaturg today would cry “enough!” In the scene that introduces Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt, the elder lawyer is on his feet conducting a string of acerbic telephone conversations. The dramatic point is that he is odious. It is made and remade.

But the length of the scenes gives the production a slab-like quality of epic. It is both hard-going but uplifting and on screen carried by the wonder of the actors. The camera under-emphasises the design although the neon lit interiors convey a chilly loneliness. Conversely the camera highlights the actors and the company of eight is individually and collectively superb. It is an indicator of the sheer hit-and-missness of a life in the arts that Denise Gough came close to packing it in when a career-making Duncan Macmillan script came her way.

For all its bravura, symbolism and sheer strangeness there are elements of Tony Kushner's writing that are a brave contrast to other AIDS-themed theatre. Firstly he goes far outside the circle of sufferers and activists- the characters of “the Normal Heart” for instance. His embracing of Mormonism and the torment of the utterly straight guy is brave. There is also a generosity to future audiences in that there is little in the way of topical reference. Oliver North and Jeanne Kirkpatrick will be unfamiliar and Ethel Rosenberg needs a search.

He is truthful to the fact of the relationship between the well and the sick. The young anywhere, outside those with a vocation for it, are “not terribly good at taking care of other people at the best of times...being asked to look after people who were catastrophically ill.” His Louis is counterpart today to the millions of hard-pressed adult children who are utterly unprepared for parents with chronic conditions. The replacement of death from acute conditions by years of chronic decline is a triumph of science but a burden for relatives and a disaster for health services. (It is to be hoped that Wales' big health-themed theatre in 2018 is going to confront the brute truths of ill-health.) Kushner was public in deploring a later generation of pieces on AIDS where “people magically went from being disco bunnies to Florence Nightingale”.

[* The full title for the 2015 thesis for Cardiff Metropolitan University is “Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End; Transposing and Reviving American Dramatic Depictions of AIDS to the British Stage in “Angels in America” and “Rent”.

It is authoritative and readable. It has a dash of theory to underpin it (Benjamin, Eco, Schechner, Judith Butler) but they are treated deftly and the writing is mainly a rich, critical and descriptive piece of scholarship.]

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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