Review: Angels in America Part 1, Millennium Approaches (Lyttelton Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10
Yes, you read correctly. Part one. This is the National Theatre’s massive production of Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, “Angels in America”. Written in 1993 on the Aids crisis of the 1980s, the fantasia follows multiple characters as they face struggles of sexuality, disease, love, and so much more besides. Oh, and it is over seven hours long. Split into two parts, it’s fair to say no-one commits to seeing this play lightly, but with the astonishing praise it has received I was excited to see how it would be brought to life once more.
As soon as the curtain rises, you are instantly struck by the grand music and Ian MacNeil’s stunning set. It consists of three revolving rooms, each lit fairly dimly and lined with neon lights, and each turning at a change in scene and a return to other characters in the play’s interweaving plots, creating beautifully smooth transitions. Even when one set is thrown into darkness, often the actors remained, reminding us of how lives and their struggles continue even when they are not centre stage.
Probably the reason this production has attracted so much attention and praise is for its performances – and well deserved praise at that. Every actor on the stage offered something unique and endearing about their character that made you invest in them and believe in how they felt. Andrew Garfield, probably the biggest name on the stage, is difficult to look away from as the sassy, aids-stricken Prior Williams. James McArdle treads a fine line between being relatable distraught and irritatingly overemotional, but ultimately he delivers a character faced with a very difficult situation – trying to remain collected when faced with one’s own overwhelming emotions prevent basic functioning. For me though, the stand out performance was Denise Gough as Valium addict and Mormon wife Harper Pitt. She gives a layered and complex portrayal of a woman trying to give the impression to herself as much as everyone around her that everything is fine, or at least everything can be fine, whilst hiding evidence of her addiction, failing marriage and neglect of faith behind humour. And well timed humour. Many of the jokes in this play depend entirely on strong delivery and the cast are masters, I laughed a lot more than I expected to.
The narrative is, as you would expect, rather jumpy due to the multiple protagonists and plots. This can work well but is difficult to make each story flow as well as one overriding story arch does to a play with only one plot. For me, I was not as moved as I wanted to be because of the narrative and its execution. Because each character lives surrounded solely by their own problem, it appears to the audience that that character is disconnected to the world as a whole and focuses entirely on the problem at hand. I find it hard to connect with any character who exists so far from the realm of reality where their character problem (addiction, sexuality, disease) appears to be the only element of their life. There is also a disconnect from anything else from the setting (1980s New York) that again detaches me from the drama. Maybe I’m being picky, but at times the plots just felt so predictable and inevitable that I began to feel like I was merely watching a progression in a characters story without feeling their anguish. I attribute this mostly to the lack of variety in tones, for example the music and sound was rather underused, meaning its infrequent use was jarring and could have been used to amplify mood or atmosphere. It was also hindered by the sheer licence that director Marianne Elliott and writer Tony Kushner have taken in creating a seven and a half hour performance. It all feels rather baggy, much like any art where no boundary is set. There’s no economic rush to the language, leading to scenes like the “most black people are anti-sematic” that, while entertaining and meaningful, don’t add enough to the story to justify them.
The sad truth is that “Angels in America” did not surprise me enough to move me. Whilst I have a deep admiration for it and can see why people love it, there were key things missing from this first instalment that prevented me from joining the hype as much as I would have liked. That said, I felt that a lot of what I saw was groundwork for the second performance. The justification of this rests entirely on the quality of the performance I see next week. And you know what? I’m looking forward to it. Three stars.