If you only see one piece of live theatre this year, make sure it is Daniel Kramer’s production of Angels In America. Running to more than seven hours – including three intervals – this staging of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic play is powerfully engaging and deeply moving from beginning to end.
Many people will remember this drama from the award-winning 2003 HBO mini-series starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. However – as this virtually flawless co-production between touring company Headlong, the Lyric Hammersmith theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre company proves – it is, first and foremost, a work for the stage.
Kushner, who is gay, Jewish and a socialist, subtitles his play, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” As the subtitle suggests, the drama interweaves imaginative, hyper-realistic and even spiritual elements with social and political concerns – in particular, Aids in the US during the 1980s.
Numerous stories are cleverly interlaced, from the sexual repression of a gay Reaganite Mormon to the immense guilt of young Jewish man Louis Ironson who, unable to face his lover’s Aids condition, abandons him.
But at the heart of the piece are Prior Walter, a 30-year old gay New Yorker with Aids, and Roy Cohn, the real life McCarthyite lawyer and closet gay who died of Aids in 1986 (which he insisted was liver cancer).
The “angels” of the play’s title appear to Prior as he moves towards death. The piece becomes like a secular mass – Prior’s fear of death and his terror of pain combine with a spiritual elevation which comes not from a god, but from his own humanity.
Cohn is Prior’s antithesis. A vicious Cold Warrior and red-baiter, he upheld homophobic court rulings while secretly having sex with men.
Cohn boasted that he played the crucial role in ensuring that the Communist activist Ethel Rosenberg was executed for espionage alongside her husband Julius in 1953. There are no angels for Cohn – he is visited by Ethel’s ghost.
Kushner draws together these two stories – one fictional, one rooted in fact – with extraordinary skill. Daniel Kramer’s production, which enjoys some of the best set design, lighting and scene changes I have seen, gives every element of the play just the right intellectual and emotional weight.
If the director and the off-stage creative team do a magnificent job, the ensemble cast is also absolutely breathtaking. Kirsty Bushell is totally compelling as Harper Pitt, the disorientated wife of the gay Mormon Joe Pitt.
Obi Abili gives a virtuoso performance as Prior’s larger-than-life friend Belize. It is no exaggeration to say that every actor on stage is world class.
Although it seems almost unfair to highlight particular performances, special mention has to be made of Mark Emerson, who sustains his character Prior with a fabulous combination of humour, intelligence and heart bursting emotion. Greg Hicks, who plays Cohn, is snake-like but shudderingly humanised in his death agony.
As political theatre goes, Angels In America soars above the certainties of polemical agitprop. Whether you see it over two nights or on a single day, I defy you not to be absolutely enthralled.
Angels in America is currently on tour, visiting Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Cambridge, Salford and London until 22 July. For more details go to www.headlongtheatre.co.uk