Thursday 20th and 27th July sees The Roses host National Theatre screenings of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; Kushner’s pioneering two part play about the Aids crisis in Eighties America. Previews ran for weeks and it became the hottest ticket in town… but why?
The play, which has the full title Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes, received its world premiere in San Francisco in 1991. It’s a devastating meditation on the Aids crisis. Throughout, characters return as “angels” or “ghosts”, and it handles political questions about experimental drug treatment and the ostracisation of the homosexual community amid the repressive conservatism of Reagan-era America. Initially it focuses on a gay couple, Prior Walter and Louis Ironson, in Manhattan, though it weaves in the storylines of other characters, a device that expresses the closeness of the gay scene in New York in the Eighties, a situation which charged the terror about the spread of Aids. The play is set in two parts which can be performed separately: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. It was adapted for HBO in 2003 with a star studded cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, and has also been turned into an opera by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös. Part one was first performed at the National Theatre in 1992, directed by Declan Donnellan, and transferred to Broadway the following year. Perestroika had its London premiere in 1993 at the National, in rep with Millennium Approaches.
The cast for this new production is gilded with stars: Oscar-nominee Andrew Garfield, playing Prior Walter, Russell Tovey (as lawyer Joe Pitt) and Olivier-minted Denise Gough, alumna of Duncan Macmillan’s People Places and Things, also at the National, in 2015. James McArdle plays Walter’s boyfriend, Louis Ironson. The play is directed by Marianne Elliott, the high-profile talent who directed both War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Angels is an expressly political response to a specific social crisis, the White House’s delayed response to the AIDS epidemic that was devastating the gay population in the United States in the 1980s it might seem to be too topical for immortality. To receive an AIDS diagnosis in 2017 is no longer to be handed a death sentence. Now extinction by nuclear war or a terrorist attack or ecocide looms as a more likely prospect in the popular imagination. The climate of fear and anger Kushner summoned feels, if anything, even more pervasive today than it did when Angels first opened. Angels is as important today at the National as it was in San Francisco 1991.
© Nancy Robb, The Roses, 2017