Angels in America review: the National Theatre has moved heaven and earth to make this 8-hour epic a theatrical event

Melissa York
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Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter
Angels in America

Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is a proper epic. Split into two four-hour parts, you can either see it over two evenings or strap in for the full eight hours and really immerse yourself in what has become a modern classic.

Ostensibly, the play follows two couples struggling to deal with very different realities in the midst of the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York. Louis is failing to accept his partner Prior is dying, while devout Mormons Joe and Harper Pitt are fighting to save their marriage after Joe admits he’s gay. Meanwhile, evil incarnate Roy Cohn (a real-life lawyer who mentored Donald Trump) is trying to pass off his diagnosis as liver cancer because “AIDS is what homosexuals have”.

But that’s just scratching the surface. It’s a state-of-the-nation play refracted through the AIDS crisis, its scope so vast that it eventually encompasses the heavens as well as the earth.

Rarely performed, many have only seen the HBO mini-series broadcast in 2003, starring Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. This production is similarly star-studded, boasting a career best performance from Nathan Lane as Cohn; who knew the man behind The Lion King’s meerkat Timon could be so devilish?

Andrew Garfield, too, is a revelation as Prior, a flamboyant high prince of the New York gay scene, a modern day prophet plagued by Biblical visions, ghosts and angels. It’s a hammy part to start with, but a super-effete Garfield really goes the whole hog.

Marianne Elliott, the directorial force behind NT’s War Horse and the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, steers this substantial ship into eerily contemporary waters. We think we’re living in brutally partisan times, but Louis spits the words ‘Reaganite’ and ‘Republican’ out like poison. His political rant on race and class towards the end of Part One is spectacularly tone deaf, yet is the sort of intersectional identity politics that are still being debated in student unions up and down the country.

This is all sparsely furnished – a dusting of snow implies we’re in Antartica, a bench that we’re in Central Park, a flaming trash can for the Bronx. Halogen strip-lighting is all that frames a series of vignettes in the first half, neon flashes of private lives, but once the heavens descend, the boundaries of the set quite literally open up to more imaginative possibilities. Without giving too much away, when the long-awaited angel crashes through the roof, she’s a damn fine wrestler.

Angels in America is a beast of a play, Shakespearean in its ambitions, and the National moves heaven and earth to make it a theatrical event to remember.

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