National Theatre (venue)
04 May 2017 (released)
07 May 2017
Tony Kushner’s exploration of the human condition through the lens of the AIDS crisis in 80s America is a sprawling, incisive, hilarious and devastating classic of 20th century theatre. If you do not know it, buy a copy and read it. If you have not seen it before on stage, watch the brilliant HBO adaptation. If you are thinking of seeing this production, and you are not currently in possession of a ticket, the odds are not in your favour: it is thoroughly sold out, except for gruelling online ballots and some live cinema screenings. Therefore, this review can really only enlighten you as to the play’s content and import for future reference, or compel you, by means nefarious or otherwise, to do what it takes to obtain yourself access.
One could argue that the angel’s declaration, “THE GREAT WORK BEGINS”, as she crashes through Prior Walter’s bedroom ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches, is mimetic of Kushner’s own muse surging through the page, urging him to conjure a piece that eviscerates all the eternal conundrums, which he found terrifyingly aligned in the conditions of the AIDS crisis in New York in the mid-80s. Politics, power, position and money. Love. Ecological breakdown. Health. Religion and belief systems. Immigration and globalisation. Race. Death. The Future. It’s all there, and this review cannot possibly attempt to do justice to such a range.
With range, comes length. Over eight hours, spread over the two halves. This dichotomy sets up purpose. Millennium Approaches is the condition and Perestroika is the cure. The prosecution and the defence. The call and response. As a result, the first part is breathless, urgent, polemical, furious, and builds to a searingly emotional climax. Part Two has the almost impossible task of trying to make sense of everything Part One has hurled into the air, and has a pleasingly woozy sense of mania as it heroically embraces that challenge.
Despite the starriness of the cast list, Kushner’s device of recycling the leads into the smaller roles (laid down in the stage notes) has the effect of surrendering the impact of individual stand-out performances to the overall omnipotence of the material itself. As a result, the actors have to work incredibly hard throughout, and they shine in constellation, rather than singularity. In conjunction with that, the stagecraft, puppetry, convoluted scenery, special effects and music all combine to produce a stunning gesamtkunstwerk, evidenced by the entire technician crew joining the actors for the curtain at the end, to a virtually unanimous standing ovation.
In a perfect world (one which of course would obviate the need for resplendent, transformative art like this), Angels in America would run and run and run in a theatre somewhere until they could finally no longer give away tickets. It’s that good, and deserves the widest possible platform. Until then, the Great Work continues.
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