Can lightning strike twice? Very much so in the case of the National Theatre, which has returned to Angels in America a quarter-century after Tony Kushner’s era-defining epic was first seen at this address, albeit with its two halves spread across a year while Kushner was finishing the second play, Perestroika.
That elaborate, unruly play seems forever to be a work in progress. Kushner’s prefatory notes to the new Nick Hern published version of the text more or less assert as much. And it remains so in Marianne Elliott’s surpassingly empathic, thrillingly acted staging, which falters only in a design (from Tony winner Ian MacNeil, of An Inspector Calls fame) that makes little sense of Kusherian time and place – and, weirdly, seems not to address the unique capacities of the Lyttelton stage. That problem seems odd, too, given that Inspector was first staged in this very auditorium, later in the same year that the director Declan Donnellan was premiering Millennium Approaches around the corner in the then-Cottesloe studio space.
But if Donnellan’s production made design sense of the text in a way this latest one doesn’t (who can forget the cracked American flag that established a direct visual motif?), Elliott and her crackerjack ensemble are attuned to the material in a way that, as the director has herself admitted, one might not have expected from a straight, white Englishwoman. (Interestingly, George C. Wolfe, who helmed the play’s breathtaking Broadway premiere, is a gay black American.) The Anglo-American cast, for starters, couldn’t seem a more cohesive unit. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Belize, for instance, is so spot-on in his American sass that one could imagine him segueing immediately to the cast of Kinky Boots.
The name players, inevitably, are Nathan Lane, returning to the UK stage for the first time since he won an Olivier Award for The Producers, and 2017 Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield, who cut his chops on the Cottesloe stage before Broadway and Hollywood came to call. Both men are in prime form, Garfield in particular mining every last florid extravagance of the ailing Prior Walter, alongside a generosity of spirit that reflects Kushner’s own. His direct appeal to the audience, the house lights raised, at the end of Perestroika is almost unutterably moving, Prior’s appeal for “more life” a necessary call for light amidst darkened times then and, alas, now.
Indeed, any worries that Kushner’s self-described “gay fantasia on national themes” might seem a period relic are countered by the regressive political climate that seems to be prevailing both sides of the pond. And by our awareness these days of Roy Cohn as a mentor-figure to a fledgling Donald Trump: Lane mines the breakneck comedy of the character near the start, as he is hollering for house seats on the phone to Cats, alongside the vitriol and self-disgust that consume Kushner’s vision of Cohn as the seven-plus hours of playing time continue. That one even has glimmers of feeling on occasion for so malign a figure honors Lane’s refusal to pass judgment on the part.
I’m not entirely persuaded that Amanda Lawrence’s beady-eyed Angel needs to leap up from the ground like some sort of airborne cockroach while multiple black-clad figures scuttle about to ensure that the faux-Spielbergian theatrics take place on cue. But a cropped-haired Denise Gough lands the visionary zeal of Harper, however thwarted and damaged that may be, while James McArdle’s Louis forsakes earnestness for a restless self-questioning that complements the unwillingness of Russell Tovey’s finely tuned Joe Pitt (the closet-case Mormon, who drifts from Harper over to Louis) to know himself.
It’s Tovey who gets the play’s defining moment of center-stage nudity, glimpsed as it were from behind, well into a play that lays bare any number of emotional, sexual and political cross-currents along the way to Prior’s vision of the new century where, as he puts it, “We will all be insane.” (That’s starting, one assumes, with the current American president.)
Prescient and provocative, its occasional chill tempered by compassion, Angels crosses the footlights in 2017 with a humanity we need more than ever just now. As for Kushner resting on his laurels, don’t believe that for a second. The playwright and screenwriter is said to be working up his own response to Trump, the refrain of which – in response to the total fabulousness of Prior – must surely be both sad and “Sad!”