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Angels in America - National Theatre

​A reminder from the National Theatre about this (at the time of writing) being the final week of performances for Angels in America served as a prompt to remind me that I hadn’t said anything about it. A combined running time of 8 hours and 10 minutes over two evenings (or, for those who were able to, or who felt able to, both parts in one day) with two intervals in each part, was enough to put off some. I thought I was at least going to get my money’s worth of performance time, and I didn’t know anything about it at the time of booking, except to say that there was a lot of excitement about this production, partially for its subject matter, partially from those who remembered the first time it played at the National Theatre, and partially – truth be told – for its casting.

A confession: I turned down an invitation to review it. This doesn’t constitute a review either, but it felt, on balance, a tad unfair to let go one of the theatrical highlights of 2017 without any comment at all. There are ebbs and flows in the narrative, which is fair enough – I wouldn’t want hours and hours of intensity, and the moments of comic relief were more frequent than I would have expected from a play that deals with the political situation in the United States in the 1980s as well as prevailing attitudes towards the gay community and HIV/AIDS.

The humour was all in good taste. The only time I recall the audience audibly wincing was at some blood spurting out of Ray Cohn (Nathan Lane) quite late on in Part Two: even Les Miserables, famed for its length, had let its audiences back out onto Shaftesbury Avenue by the time it happened. I had no problem with Andrew Garfield’s performance as the lead character Prior Walter, portrayed with suitable aplomb and a mixture of campness and flamboyancy. There were some doubts about him from some quarters – if I understood correctly, the perception was that his Hollywood career has been so substantial and successful that he might not have what it takes to convincingly perform on stage. But he’s acted at the National before, and was in the cast of a production of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. And he shines in Angels.

The whole appearance of ‘The Angel’ (Amanda Lawrence), complete with wings (operated by Stuart Angell (don’t scoff), Laura Caldow, Claire Lambert, Becky Namgauds, Stan West and Lewis Wilkins), scares the living daylights out of Walter, and of Hannah Pitt (Susan Brown). It is, in some ways, more significant that the latter becomes terrified, given that she practises religion. Depicting an angel in this manner takes Angels in America closer to the King James Bible (and other translations) in its descriptions of angels than many religious dramas staged in churches: they are mighty and powerful creatures, who, if the Bible is to be believed, usually find themselves saying, “Fear not!”, as the angel Gabriel did to the Virgin Mary.

With everything going on in today’s world, one can be forgiven for wanting to hark back to halcyon days. Whether Donald Trump and Theresa May are better or worse than Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is debatable, especially after seeing Angels in America! But one aspect that has improved significantly is the living standards of people diagnosed with HIV. Relatively few (but one, I suppose, is still one too many) are later diagnosed with AIDS. But where there have been advances in medical science, the same is not universally true with regards to homophobia and prejudiced opinions. In that regard today’s society is somewhat poorer than the generation before, knowing what we know, and still…

I saw it in the cinema as part of the NT Live broadcast series before I saw it at the National Theatre itself. The screenings expose the set design flaws, as the cameras couldn’t zoom in on characters as they would normally do, given the number of split scenes in the play, and panoramic views consequently required. An extraordinary experience.

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