09/09/17 and 14/09/17
Thank heavens for NT Live. The National Theatre’s 2017 revival of Angels in America sold out within a few short hours. Of course it did! And, although there’s always the tempting possibility of day tickets (available for same-day performances from 9.30am in person from the box office), they’re only really practical if you’re based in London. We are certainly never going to travel from Scotland on the off-chance we might procure a couple of seats. But NT Live means we can experience this landmark production anyway – even though we’re too busy to see the actual live screening in July, the fact that it’s been committed to film bypasses the ephemeral nature of theatre, and gives us the opportunity to catch up with an encore showing at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, a short walk from our apartment.
Okay, it’s not as good as actually being there, sharing a space with the actors in real time. There’s none of the intimacy or jeopardy of live theatre, but it’s a pretty decent second best and we’re very grateful for it. The Festival Theatre is an excellent venue for such a venture: I’ve only seen these screenings in cinemas before, but being in a theatre adds a level of authenticity, and the screen is huge, the sound quality excellent.
It’s a bit of a marathon, this play, even spread over two evenings. But, my word, it’s worth it. In just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s script offers us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic.
The protagonist is Prior Walter, played here by Andrew Garfield in an eye-opening performance: he is, we discover, an actor with real range. Prior is dying and he’s afraid; his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), can’t cope and so he leaves. While Louis weeps and beats his breast with useless, futile public expressions of guilt, Prior begins hallucinating, having visions. He’s visited by an angel and by his long-dead ancestors. And, in his dreams, he collides with another tortured soul, Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), the mentally ill Morman whose husband, Joseph (Russell Tovey), is secretly gay. It’s a convoluted, complex plot, difficult to summarise, but eminently watchable: it all makes perfect sense when it unfolds before our eyes.
I’ve read the play, of course (I’m a theatre studies graduate), and I’ve seen the 2003 mini-series starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino. But this production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is something else: it’s genuinely stupendous. Susan Brown’s performance, for example, is impeccable; she plays six roles with utter conviction. And I find myself especially delighted by Amanda Lawrence’s Angel; she’s mesmerising, and beautifully supported by the Angel Shadows, six black-clad actors, who control her wings as well as performing the lifts and balances that make her seem airborne.
The set is a thing of wonder too, although I’d like to see more long shots in the filming, to help me envisage what the piece looks like as a whole; instead, there are a lot of mid shots and close-ups, which allow me to see the actors clearly but don’t give me a true sense of the space. Still, it’s obviously spectacular, all rotating cogs and zooming rooms, a whole world contained within the confines of the stage.
I’m delighted to have had the chance to see this play; it’s a truly iconic piece, challenging and thought-provoking and entertaining to the end.