Since it premiered (in full – all seven hours, in two parts) in 1992, Angels in America has been invoked as a canonical masterwork in the league of A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Raisin in the Sun and Our Town; a play deeply concerned with the core struggles of humanity, and deeply concerned with the ongoing struggles of America – while also being rooted in the post-Cold War and pre-Millennial anxiety of the ’90s. It’s a play that came out of a time of both incredible wealth, smug satisfaction and selfishness, on the one hand, and of extreme anxiety, anguish and loss, on the other; a time of vacuum, when the political narrative of the past five decades suddenly seemed to have come to a grinding halt, even as society spun faster, giddier and more reckless than ever before with drugs, sexual liberation, deregulation, and the financial excess of the ‘80s… Until AIDS, the fraying ozone layer and a recession came knocking.
But where many plays about politics inevitably feel like theoretical propositions disguised as character and narrative, in Angels, our protagonists are human before they are political; they are confused, struggling, contradictory – complicated. We see ourselves in them. There’s a couple of reasons for that, the first being that seven hours of theatre enables you to develop rich characters. Then into this larger ‘mould’, Kushner has poured the raw emotions of two personal tragedies in his life – the injury of his closest friend and the sudden death of his mother – and his own troubled ‘coming out’. He further infuses his work with the gay community’s devastation in the face of AIDS, and the Jewish community’s anguish at their loss of place.
Looking at this wealth of personal experience, Kushner’s attack on Reagan’s America is perhaps the least important of all the ideas and themes bobbing around in Angels – except inasmuch that it created an unbearable, untenable situation for America’s minorities, that forced them into reaction.
Out of this melee of history and personal reflection emerges a play rich in humour, beauty, love, pain, and hope, peppered with surreal and even magical imagery: the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman chewing down a pine tree, a diorama that comes to life. It’s – particularly in its second part, ‘Perestroika’ – sprawling and messy, but meticulously so. It never feels long, it never feels flaccid or meandering. There’s not an ounce of fat on this script.
Belvoir have chosen the new, amended version of Angels, published in 2013. Fans of the play or mini-series may notice that ‘Perestroika’ has a new narrative thread woven in. Many won’t notice anything. It remains a play that pivots on the issues of responsibility/care and individualism/selfishness; a world of progress, or a world of chaos; hope, and despair.
A new generation of theatregoers, unfamiliar with the play, will delight in getting to know Prior Walter (Luke Mullins) and his absentee lover Louis Ironson (Mitchell Butel); lapsed Mormon and heterosexual Joe Pitt (Ashley Zukerman) and his pill-popping wife Harper (Amber McMahon); Roy Cohn (Marcus Graham), the charismatic, closeted Republican lawyer and ‘polestar of human evil’; widow and suffering Mormon mother Hannah Pitt (Robyn Nevin), who has an unexpected sexual and spiritual awakening in New York; and the sardonic, sublime, sexually liberated Belize – nurse, drag queen, lover, friend.
Which all goes to say: you’d have to do something pretty drastically bad to suck the life out of Angels in America.
But you’d also have to do something pretty special to do it justice. Eamon Flack (As You Like It in 2011; Babyteeth in 2012) and his team have achieved the latter – and the result is a rare, wonderful theatre experience. They offer up a superb suite of performances (Robyn Nevin and Luke Mullins are possibly stand outs, oscillating effortlessly between the dramatic and the comedic modes); fizzing chemistry between the characters; an uncluttered – but striking – set design and staging that gives the words and ideas and overlapping narratives space to breathe, literally and figuratively – which combined with Kushner’s muscular, finely calibrated script, give rise to a collective reflection and self-realisation that the best theatre strives for. On opening night, you could cut the emotion in the theatre with a knife.
This is the kind of production that makes a lot of the more formally challenging and auteurist works on Sydney’s main-stage programmes look positively anaemic by comparison.
One of the great pleasures of Belvoir's Angels, for many, will be seeing gay characters (let alone 'gay stories') on stage; they might also wonder why, when we have so many great queer playwrights, we're not seeing more of this on Sydney stages. Surely, the time has come.
Angels in America is performed as two separate shows, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika. It runs until July 14 at Belvoir St and from July 18-28 at Theatre Royal. More info here.