Belvoir St Theatre, June 1
Set in the 1980s during the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, Tony Kushner’s epic, two-part drama Angels in America was a landmark piece of theatre when it premiered in 1991.
First seen in Sydney in 1993, the social and political context has changed but the human dilemmas in the play still resonate powerfully in this very special Belvoir production directed by Eamon Flack.
Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Angels in America tells the cleverly meshed stories of several different characters, connected through other people that they meet either in real life or hallucinations.
In Greenwich Village, a young man called Prior Walter (Luke Mullins) has full-blown AIDS – as does Roy Cohn (Marcus Graham), the real-life, notoriously corrupt Republic lawyer. But where Prior, an ex-drag queen, is out and proud, the aggressive, tough-talking Cohn insists that he is dying of liver cancer because homosexuals have “zero clout” and he therefore cannot be one.
Unable to cope with Prior’s escalating sickness, his Jewish boyfriend Louis (Mitchell Butel) leaves him, becoming involved with Joe Pitt (Ashley Zukerman), a closeted, Mormon and protégé of Cohn’s with a pill-popping wife called Harper.
Angels in America is a thrillingly daring, imaginative, humanist play that combines political, social, religious and environmental themes with wonderful flights of fancy including an angel who declares Prior a prophet.
Michael Hankin has designed a stark, beige-tiled set, which works brilliantly for a play that moves between Central Park, Antarctica, Salt Lake City, hospitals and heaven among other locations.
On this open space, Flack directs a crystal clear production that flows seamlessly. He uses the space superbly and has choreographed the scene changes with economical precision. Characters in hallucinations arrive and depart with a cheek toss of glitter, while the arrival of the angel is a glorious explosion of colour and sound.
Perched on a stepladder in a slightly underwhelming costume, the first glimpse of the angel is a bit of a letdown after the Spielberg-like build-up to her revelation, but that’s a minor quibble.
In every other way Mel Page’s costumes, Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Alan John’s music add to a superbly staged production.
The casting could hardly be better with all the actors working together as a finely tuned ensemble. Mullins gives a deeply sympathetic performance as Prior that embraces his camp wit, fear and fortitude, while his skinny physique makes the ravages of AIDS-related illnesses painfully believable. It’s a performance so truthful it hurts to watch.
Graham is also superb as the demonic Cohn, conveying his physical disintegration so convincingly his face seems to become a stretched death mask.
Butel captures the guilt-ridden angst of Louis, whose mind and mouth are forever racing, while McMahon gives a touchingly warm, sweetly funny, poignant portrayal of Harper, whose fears about the destruction of the ozone layer and Joe’s true nature/sexuality tip her into Valium-induced hallucinations.
There are also excellent performances from Zukerman as Joe, Paula Arundell as a nurse and the angel, DeObia Oparei as Belize, a black drag queen who is a friend of Prior’s and a nurse caring for Cohn, and Robyn Nevin in a series of roles including a rabbi, doctor and Bolshevik as well as Joe’s Mormon mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who visits Cohn.
Part 1, Millennium Approaches, runs nearly four hours but zips by. It really is a contemporary classic. Part II, Perestroika, feels a little slow to start – but that’s in the writing rather than the production.
You can see both parts in one day (which I’d recommend) or separately. Either way, by the end of the seven hours of theatre (plus four intervals), you have gone on an extraordinary journey with the characters. You have laughed and cried with them, and shared their struggles, fears, anxiety, heartaches and joys.
Despite all the world problems canvassed by the play, you feel elated at the end, sharing its defiant optimism.
Belvoir St Theatre until July 14; Theatre Royal, July 18 – 28
An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 9