Sunday 4 June 2017

Angels in America at the National, or, Hopefully Not Elliott's Farewell

After a run of uneven to poor shows it's a pleasure to be able to report that finally the National has a hit with this outstanding revival of Tony Kushner's epic.

Kushner's play is an often heartbreaking exploration primarily of the experience of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America but also of the rich complexity of the gay community. It's also a terrible reminder of a world in which it was often far harder than it now is to be open about one's sexual identity. The play begins as a comparatively realist saga of a number of protagonists – the closeted Republican lawyer Roy M Cohn (Nathan Lane), the Pitts – a Mormon couple (Denise Gough and Russell Tovey), and a gay couple – Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and Louis Ironson (James McArdle). But there are already blurred lines between the imagined and the real. These increase in the second part when Prior receives a visitation from Amanda Lawrence's Angel that eventually leads us to a despairing, death-longing Heaven. Part Two could occasionally have done with a little judicious trimming, but ultimately I forgave the occasional flabbiness because the play is able to laugh at itself, strikes at prejudice with an undiminished power, and, often, brought tears to my eyes. One can't of course really know what it must have been like to see this when it was originally performed, especially if you had direct experience of that world and the epidemic, but watching this revival does offer powerful glimpses.

The success of this marathon is also a tribute to the great Marianne Elliott. Her body of work over ten years as an NT Associate director, which I've been privileged to see nearly all of, has been quite simply magnificent. This is no exception. She is supported by spot on contributions from Ian MacNeil's set, Paule Constable's lighting, Robby Graham's choreography and movement, Nicky Gillibrand's costumes, Ian Dickinson's sound design, Adrian Sutton's music, Finn Caldwell's puppetry and others. The work of Elliott and her team here could be very usefully studied by a number of Rufus Norris's more recent directorial hires in the tricky Lyttelton space. Elliott knows how to shrink that space so, watching, one forgets how big it is and focuses on the intimacy of particular scenes. That successful creation of intimacy is also a factor in why, when the stage is opened out later, despite the limited personnel and the often sparse set, I never felt as though they were lost in the space. She also develops the staging in harmony with the play – in Part One it is fairly well grounded in realism, as things become more fantastical the staging becomes more spare – but never at the expense of losing the sense of the realness of the characters and their plight. In the more fantastical sections Elliott makes use of all the National's resources – small revolves, trap doors, fire, aerials, illusions – the Angel in particular has a magical beauty which recalls similar elements in War Horse and His Dark Materials – but all of this enhances characters, narrative and emotion. Perhaps the fineness of the production is best captured by the fact that, despite the spareness, I really believed that Hannah Pitt (Susan Brown) and Sister Ella Chapter (Amanda Lawrence) were looking out over Salt Lake City, and that the quartet in the final scene were walking in New York City.

Elliott also, as in other work I've seen, has a deep care for the power of how characters physically interact – consistently throughout this epic there's an electricity to kisses, blows, embraces, and the moments when the black nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) holds the racist Lane as he spasms in agony.

Elliott's vision is executed on stage by an outstandingly committed cast amongst without a weak link (something that has too often not been the case in the Norris era). All of the principals I've already mentioned have to undergo journeys of some sort through the narrative and they all change convincingly but never jarringly – one is privileged to witness here a set of complete performances of a kind not often seen. Everybody also has to double and some individuals here are particularly worthy of note. Denise Gough transforms strikingly into Reaganite accolyte Martin Heller. Susan Brown, as well as her deeply moving turn as Hannah Pitt, is a forbidding Ethel Rosenberg, male doctor, and the Rabbi/old Bolshevik who sets everything going at the start of each part – it's a remarkable exercise in versatility. And finally there's Amanda Lawrence who draws an especially striking contrast between the powerful Angel, and the contained Ella Chapter – the farewell scene between her and Hannah already mentioned – two people uneasy about expressing feeling - is superb.

What is finally so powerful about this piece, and which suggests to me that it will long endure, is not simply its ability to immerse the viewer in a particular time of trauma, but the fact that it finally speaks to something wider – our capacity as humans both to fail, and to at least partially redeem that failure. This has a powerful emotional charge, not just because of the horror, pain, love and fragile hope of the world immediately depicted here, but because, in places, it feels as if the play is also commenting on aspects of our present crisis.

Back in November it was announced that Marianne Elliott (whom Norris had wisely retained when he took over the Artistic Directorship) was stepping down as an NT Associate. With the National's schedule largely announced through to the end of 2017 there is no sign of further work for her. But she is for me, with the recent untimely death of Howard Davies, the finest director on the National's roster. Norris has rarely brought in directors of similar calibre. If I were him, I would be on my knees begging Elliott to come back. Meanwhile, this, I sincerely hope, temporary Elliott NT farewell is unmissable. Queue for returns.

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