It’s one of the biggest plays of the late twentieth century, perhaps one of the last entries in the American canon, one of the newest classics, and it’s not without its own kind of grandeur. Written as two plays, and billed as “an epic double-comedy of love and hate, heaven and earth, past and future,” Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is set in 1985, and revolves around a group of “marginalised individuals in New York in the last years of the Cold War,” as the AIDS epidemic sweeps them all up in its path. To see the two plays in sequence on consecutive days is by turns compelling and grueling, and I don’t think it would be any easier seeing them on the same day.
Staged within a beige-tiled atrium, Angels in America is directed with a vitality and cleverness by Eamon Flack, and to use a character’s analogy, it’s all a bit like an octopus with its eight arms waving about, trying to keep track of every character, every actor, each plotline, and still keep everything in the scope of the bigger picture. Now a generation old (as a complete play, it is a year or two younger than I am), whether you realise it or not, it’s “actually a play about the beginning of the era we’re now in the thick of.”
Having read the play and seen the HBO telemovie, I thought I knew what the play was about, and I guess I still do. But there’s a strange alchemy that happens when you see a play – this play – performed on stage, and particularly one like Belvoir’s corner, and it takes on a life of its own, well outside of any preconceived idea you had of it or its prior forms. And while as an entire piece of theatre, the two parts were rather beautifully produced and created, there was a kind of emptiness to the first two acts of Part One, a lack of ‘life’. Seemingly staged by Flack on either the edges of the stage or in the middle of the space, the action never seemed to fill the space entirely as it shifted from place to place, from character to character. At least, not until the beginning of Act Three when the prior Walters visit Prior Walter in his bedroom. From then on, as everything began to accelerate towards the inevitable climax of Part One, the space came to life with the exuberance, wit, energy and almost apocalyptic sense of play that is embodied in Kushner’s play. By the end of Part Two, the multiple storylines have, like the characters, converged upon New York, and the characters achieve (for the most part) a kind of absolution in the face of their struggle. And Flack, having directed the marvelous As You Like It and tender Babyteeth for Belvoir, turns his cheeky playful seriousness to this play, and the result is a rare kind of revelation. Reading the play again, afterwards, a lot of the humour in the scenes is Kushner’s, is intrinsically there in the words and the rhythm of the life of the scene; what Flack has done has been to amplify it, make it seem fresh and new, almost a daring of style. Moments like the Angel’s entrance in the closing moments of Part One, and the revealing of the book containing the flaming aleph immediately prior to it, are built out of a simplicity and an ingeniousness that seems to be inseparable from Flack’s directing style. The entrance of a character into another’s private dream – like Mr Lies into Harper’s valium-induced experiences – are created from the simple magic contained within a handful of glitter. When coupled with Belvoir’s visible lack of space for stage machinery, and the malleability of the stage design, these solutions seem almost too simple to be effective, but they are effective; in fact, they’re more than that – they’re almost perfect.
The cast were all superb – I don’t think any actor played just one character; through the magic of doubling and costumes (by the ever-inventive Mel Page) and the bare-mechanics of Flack’s scene changes, every actor became someone else, effortlessly, totally, convincingly. Opening each Part, was Robyn Nevin, first as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, then as Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest Bolshevik. Both characters perform a similar function, both a kind of omniscient narrator sent out to ‘prepare the way’ for the forthcoming play, and are rather obliquely humorous. Mitchell Butel as Louis is splendid, his speeches (when he gets going) become something akin to Woody Allen’s in Manhattan and Annie Hall. We feel the pain, the sacredness, the dumbfounded confusion, of Luke Mullins’ Prior Walter, just as much as we see and hear it. Amber McMahon’s Harper is both naïve and unperturbed by the whole thing, though her resolution didn’t seem to fit within the context of everyone else’s; she is perhaps the only character who doesn’t achieve a satisfactory ending. Robyn Nevin was equally hardy and determined as Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg, and the fact they were played by the same actor perhaps says more about their purpose and effect than of them themselves; underneath their hardiness however, was a tenderness, and it’s something that could easily have been lost in the hands of a less-skilled actor. Ashley Zuckerman as Joe, like his wife Harper, was naïve, innocent, very much caught up in the whole thing without quite knowing what he was doing or what was happening, who people were. His relationship with Roy Cohn (played by Marcus Graham) seemed at times flat and un-real, but that is perhaps the point – it was more out of desperation on Joe’s part, a need for a father-figure and or mentor than anything else; Cohn – being who he was – used Joe and turned him against himself, his wife, his mother and almost everything else in the world. DeObia Oparei, as Belize and Mr Lies, was a glorious mix of charm, warmth, coldness, sass, and conviction, so sure of himself and his world yet able to snap into the defensive mode as the occasion arose. Played by Paula Arundell, the Angel was both fierce and aloof, a kind of hell-bent (and almost literal) deus ex-machina, and I don’t necessarily think Kushner intended it to be a Judeo-Christian biblical prophesying type of angel, but more the idea of ‘an Angel’ – a manifestation of an idea as opposed to any specific religious entity. And in its own way, it was thrilling, haunting, beautiful, dangerous.
At its core, Angels in America is a ‘gay fantasia’ on a theme of America – just as “Chekhov’s Russia is a mental Russia,” so too is Kushner’s play “about a human struggle called America” – and speaks about all that is “expansive, rough, wild and incomplete in human life,” rather than anything complete, contained, tidy, labeled. And just as Kushner’s play looks forward and back to the old and the new, a bit like a lighthouse, so too do the stories we (must) tell embody all that has come before and all that will come afterwards. In a word, the play contains the new-millennial elements of “language, imagination, elan, will, love, connectedness, argument, ideas, a love of life, a sense of humour…” and proves that more than anything else at the moment, we need to live. We need – we crave – “more life.”
Theatre playlist: 14. God Music, from Black Angels, George Crumb, perf. Australian Chamber Orchestra