In April I headed to New York to watch my favourite Chris – Chris Evans do the play Lobby Hero on Broadway. My friends and I had a fine time and getting to see Chris Evans up close and personal from the front row was definitely something to remember. But while that was the play I flew over there for it wasn’t the one I came back thinking about. Lobby Hero was a perfectly pleasant evening with a (mostly) fine cast of actors doing slightly un-demanding roles. I enjoyed it immensely and haven’t really thought about it since I’ve seen it. Angels in America however I simply cannot stop thinking about. To quote Hamilton “it’s consumed my waking days”. It was simply the most extraordinary theatrical experience I’ve ever had.
Now when it came to booking plays for the trip I admit I initially dithered a bit about booking to see Angels on America on Broadway. I’d seen it here when it was on at the National. My friend and I spent the entirety of a Saturday cramped into the second row of the stalls in the Lyttleton where we were so completely and utterly spell-bound by the production and the phenomenal acting that we failed to spot Lin-Manuel Miranda was sitting in the stalls with us. (Pro-tip never sit in the second row of the Lyttleton for a long play – those seats have no leg room and I was barely able to move the next day.) I utterly loved the production and wanted to see it again but there’s no getting around it’s a massive time commitment. If you watch it in one day (and I suggest that you do, I think you need to go on the journey with the cast from beginning to end – leaving at the end of part one I think you’d feel terribly short changed) you’re basically spending your entire day in the theatre. I can fly home from New York in a shorter amount of time than it takes to watch all of Angels in America. Did I really want to spend a whole day of my holiday in the theatre?
Then there’s the cost. I saw Angels in America here for £30. To see the same production in the US would cost me £300. Broadway tickets are absolutely astronomically priced. I also saw The Iceman Cometh on this trip (which I thought was a so-so rather dated production with a killer performance from Denzel Washington). I sat in the tourist cheap seats, by the sound desk, surrounded by people who would not stop talking and who had no idea how to turn their ring tones/notifications/alarms off and it cost me nearly £100. That’s the cost of a premium ticket in the West End. The pricing is completely crazy.
But… I adored Andrew Garfield and James McArdle in London and I very much wanted to see Lee Pace (as an old fan of Pushing Daisies) as Joe so I took the plunge and booked. And I’m so glad that I did. I’m really not overstating it when I say that seeing Angels in America on Broadway was a beautiful, profoundly moving experience that had me in pieces but left me feeling somewhat hopeful for the road ahead. The show was good in London but it felt to me like performing the play in its hometown deepened the performances so much more. It completely and totally blew me away.
If you’re not familiar with the story (and I confess I really wasn’t before seeing it at the National) Angels in America tells the story of Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a young man in the 1980’s who discovers he is dying of AIDS. His boyfriend Louis (James McArdle) is devastated at Prior’s diagnosis and leaves him for Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) a gay, closeted, republican Mormon. Joe is married to Harper (Denise Gough who won an Olivier for her work in London) – an agoraphobic valium addict who worries about the hole in the ozone layer and who longs to escape her misery. Joe is mentored by Roy Cohn, (Nathan Lane) a fictionalised version of the real life closeted lawyer (and public menace) who was a great McCarthy supporter, secured the execution of Ethel Rosenberg and who died declaring with his dying breaths that he had liver cancer rather than AIDS. Cohn is cared for in hospital by a nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart Jarrett), who is also Prior’s good friend (and ex). Prior is visited by an angel (Beth Malone in the version I saw) who declares him a prophet of the lord and at one point takes him to heaven to meet the other angels who want him to convey to humanity that they have to stop moving in order for everything to be alright. It’s a LOT of story – no wonder it needs seven hours to tell it.
There aren’t really words that do justice to how superlative the entire cast are. I liked Andrew Garfield in the Spiderman movies and The Social Network and loved him in the devastatingly haunting Never Let Me Go and Breathe but he’s just next level brilliant as Prior Walter. The Tony Award he picked up for this role was very well deserved. There are points when he looks so distraught by the pain Prior has to go through that he looked like he could barely stand. Prior has to go through so much in Angels in America – physical pain from his illness, the mortal terror of realising he’s going to die early, the concern he’s losing his mind seeing and hearing angels everywhere, the heartbreak and desperate loneliness he feels at Louis leaving him right when he needs him the most. As Prior Andrew Garfield will shatter your heart into a million pieces and then put it back together just enough for that final, beautiful, hopeful speech. I am a bit of a cryer when it comes to films and TV. But I generally need the bells and whistles of the big music and the stirring speech to get the water works flowing. In this I burst into tears in the first part at a very ill, distraught and horribly lonely Prior crying that he wanted his boyfriend. Andrew’s performance just shattered me – despite playing a character very far I suspect from most of those watching he made Prior very relatable. We all ached with him. When he dances with a spectral Louis (after a very funny visit from two historical Prior Walters – played by Nathan Lane and Lee Pace) it’s such a tender, hopeful scene it hurt my heart.
Andrew Garfield has fantastic chemistry with everyone which is rare. I adored his relationship with the fierce and loyal Belize, the “threshold of revelation” scenes with Harper, the tenderness of his relationship with Louis (especially in the final hospital scene with Louis where he is love and kindness personified) and the sweet/unexpected pairing that is his friendship with Hannah (Susan Brown who utterly deserved her Tony nomination for multi tasking like a boss playing six different characters).
I know Andrew Garfield has received a lot of criticism for being a straight actor playing an iconic gay role (although having bought the excellent The World Only Spins Forward he is far from the only straight actor to play Prior) and for being too camp but I don’t see it that way. Prior is a former drag queen (Garfield does drag in one scene and looks incredible) and to me his waspy and arch comments are his way of hiding his pain behind his fierce and fabulous drag persona. It’s a shield he can hide behind when the horrors of what he’s going through are too much. It’s a fool who thinks the affectations make him sound weak – he’s incredibly fierce – particularly in one of the best scenes in the play where clad in the most fantastic black coat he accepts his prophet status and astonishes Louis with knowledge he shouldn’t have about Joe. “How do I know? Fuck you I’m a prophet”.
Andrew Garfield is also really really funny. I remember watching bits of the much revered HBO version of Angels and finding it super po-faced. This production is frequently hilarious and it’s mostly due to Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. It’s not hyperbole to say Andrew’s transformative performance as Prior Walter will stay with me for a very very long time. It’s the performance of his career and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor pour so much of his body, heart and soul into a performance as Andrew Garfield does.
Equally stunning is James McArdle as Louis (who should have been nominated for a Tony but was slightly mystifyingly passed over for Michael Cera who is perfectly fine in an unchallenging part in Lobby Hero but also very clearly the show’s lead in the wrong category). See on paper Louis is heinous. He’s an over talkative coward who is looking to leave Prior from the moment he finds out he’s sick and then finally walks out on him when his illness progresses to the point where he needs to be hospitalised. He leaves Prior at the very point he needs him the most and hooks up with Joe, callously seducing him while Prior is dying in hospital. He also pays scant regard to Joe’s feelings (who is falling in love with him) and in his infamous Democracy in America epic monologue he shows himself to be so cheerfully clueless lecturing Belize on what America is and how it doesn’t have a problem with racism that you want to slap him.
And yet… in James McArdle’s hands you just can’t help but love Louis even if you know you shouldn’t. The key is that McArdle makes it so clear in his performance that Louis runs not because he’s terrified of AIDS or doesn’t want to care for Prior but because he loves him so deeply he is mortally terrified of watching the person he loves the most in the world die. McArdle conveys Louis’ love for Prior so strongly – the way he looks all beautifully starry eyed at Prior in their early scenes together and his total devastation when Prior shows him his lesion. The fact that Prior is dying destroys him so utterly that the only way he can deal with it is to run. In a fascinating conversation with Backstage recently McArdle said that Louis is mourning Prior before he’s dead and that’s absolutely it. He can’t cope with what is happening to Prior so he has him dead even though he’s still there and wanting Louis to be with him. McArdle makes a character which we should hate not only likeable but also relatable. I think we’d all like to think that when faced with Louis’ situation we’d all step up to the plate and be amazing but I think we all fear that actually we might turn tail and run screaming. McArdle doesn’t shy from the darker aspects of the character. I wanted to hit him when he blithely tells a wan and lonely Prior in the prophet scene that Joe is “just company”, as if there is anything worse that could be said to the love of your life that you’ve walked out on and left to face a terrible death alone. And yet when Prior rightly calls him on it, telling him with weary disgust that everyone who is going through what he is is being looked after by a friend or a lover but Prior only has him, Louis dissolves into pieces. We should find his tears hateful – the reaction of a snivelling coward and yet because McArdle is so good we almost feel as bad for Louis as we do for Prior. McArdle’s Louis is a man that simply isn’t emotionally ready to deal with Prior’s situation so he hides his misery in Joe’s affections for a while before his anger over Joe’s covert gay bashing brings him to his senses.
His delivery of the Democracy in America monologue is also stunning. Marianne Elliot (who directs wonderfully) cleverly turns a monologue into a conversation by having the piece be more about Belize’s reaction. Louis may be tying himself in knots trying to convey what he wants to say but all we’re waiting for is Belize to step in and tell him to shut the hell up. Its a tour de force of acting on McArdle’s part.
To take a character that unlikeable and turn him into someone that I ended up wanting to get back together with Prior is a Herculean task and James McArdle managed it effortlessly. He’s an utter joy to watch and I’m going to continue being aggravated on his behalf at the lack of Tony love for some time to come.
Nathan Lane is brilliant. To be honest you could just leave it there as nothing more needs to be said. In his hands Roy Cohn is monstrous, terrifying, controlling and ultimately rather sad and lonely. Cohn’s first scene where he juggles a million calls in front of a slightly awed Joe is a masterpiece. Funny and vulgar Lane shows us that Cohn craves control. In a scene with the excellent Susan Brown playing his doctor we see the core of Cohn’s character. He’s willing to deny his own sexual identity to his dying breath not because he has any qualms about who he is but because in the eyes of the world at that time homosexuals were on the lowest rung politically and had none of what Roy had fought tooth and nail his whole life for – “clout”. It’s all he cares about, having and keeping power. Power which affords him the ability to get his hands on the experimental drug AZT when he needs it but power which is ultimately worthless against the illness ravaging his body. Lane deftly creates a very funny, very memorable monster. His relationship with Joe is fascinating and complex. With Russell Tovey as Joe it was much more of a father/son mentor vibe but with Lee Pace as Joe the tone is very much that of hidden desire (side note one of the most entertaining aspects of the show was watching James McArdle and Nathan Lane having to go up on tip toe to kiss the extremely tall Lee Pace while trying not to make it look like they were). Lane is also highly amusing as a camp historical relative of Prior Walter. My favourite scenes were those showing a dying (but still viper like) Cohn interacting with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown again). Her utterly vindictive joy at him being stripped of his right to practice law ensuring he died “powerless” and his duping her to ensure that even in his dying breath he could crow about winning. Sad and viciously brilliant all at the same time. One of the most unexpectedly moving scenes in the whole play is Belize forcing a very reluctant Louis to pray over the body of Cohn with the ghostly Ethel feeding him the lines. Nathan Lane’s portrayal of Roy Cohn is one for the ages.
I loved Lee Pace as Joe. Russell Tovey was interesting and more puppy like in the role but Lee Pace really shows the depth of Joe’s pain, confusion and denial. The scene where he strips off (and that was way more of Lee Pace than I was expecting to see) is such a joyous moment – he’s coming out and accepting himself after years of misery and hiding. Pace plays him as a sweet, complex man who has emotionally closed himself off for so long and is only just beginning to realise the possibility of what his life could be. His (almost) sexless interactions with Harper are painful (I winced at every “hey buddy” – the most painfully trite and loveless term of affection I’ve ever heard). Pace brings a charm and cautious optimism to the role that makes your heart hurt for him when he falls for Louis and he is careless for his feelings. But Joe is of course no saint – his denial of his true self extending to him treating others poorly when writing legal decisions for his judge prompting Louis’ justified outrage. When met with a furious Louis, Joe is confused and so quick to turn violent it’s shocking. Pace shows us the pent up rage, violence and distress that are hidden under the seemingly placid surface of Joe, a man who has to hide who he is for so long. His pained “coming out” call to his mother (the indefatigable Susan Brown) is utterly heartbreaking as is his confession to Harper of what he does at night in the park. While I am a huge Russell Tovey fan I do wish we were able to have the New York version recorded for NT Live. Not only have all the cast grown so much in their roles but Pace’s Joe Pitt was such a good match for McArdle’s Louis (and clearly an intellectual match for him which few in the play are) and Lane’s Cohn that it’s a real shame it won’t be recorded for posterity. Joe is the only character that doesn’t get any sort of resolution in Kushner’s play. He’s just left devastated and alone by Harper after having been ditched by Louis. It’s a cold ending for the character. But Lee Pace was superb and I’m very glad I decided to book to see him.
The only actor I’m not perhaps 100% in love with is Denise Gough as Harper. Gough is a phenomenal actress capable of extraordinary ferocity but I find her Harper a bit…muted. Perhaps I just don’t get Harper. Maybe that’s a fairer statement. I love the threshold of revelation scenes with Prior (Gough and Garfield have really lovely chemistry) and she’s very funny in a distressing, edge of a total breakdown way in all her early scenes with Mr Lies (Nathan Stewart Jarrett again). But her Harper is lost in valium from the beginning, arch and dryly witty with it but still a bundle of child like nerves. We understand why Joe wants to ditch her (even as we rail at him for being the reason she’s like this). I guess my main complaint is I just don’t feel her love for Joe. The scene where he says he isn’t and never was sexually interested in her should decimate her and yet she’s too lost in the drugs. I think Harper is an exceptionally tricky character to get to the bottom of. Still Gough absolutely nails her final scene with a confident, stronger Harper bravely flying off to new adventures. She’s also incredible in the best directed scene in the whole play where the end of Harper and Joe and Louis and Prior’s relationships play out on stage together at the same time. The moment when she leaves Joe and turns just before she heads out as if she can see Prior there next to her? I got goosebumps. Such clever staging from the brilliant Marianne Elliot.
Elsewhere Nathan Stewart Jarrett is funny, kind and ferocious as Belize (his arguments with Louis and Roy Cohn are worth the price of admission alone) and Susan Brown is incredible in all six of her roles. I’ll admit Perestroika slightly loses me with all the angel stuff but I greatly enjoyed Beth Malone’s more childlike lost angel (as opposed to Amanda Lawrence’s slightly more feral version).
The staging is somewhat simple with brightly lit neon drenching the scenes with revolving elements. But it all works impeccably. And there are moments of true wonder (like the column of fire that appears before a terrified Prior in his doctor’s waiting room or Prior’s ascension into heaven).
Angels in America should have felt like a somewhat dated curiosity. After all the AIDS crisis feels so long ago that our knowledge of it is far more woeful than it should be. But watching the production it feels remarkably timely with its themes of morally bankrupt power grabbing charlatans and people being ignored and left to die by a government that doesn’t value their worth. It’s a play that teaches that change can happen, not instantly and the process may be ugly but change will happen and cannot be stopped. In a world of Trump where atrocities like the abandonment of the people of Puerto Rico and Parkland can happen and where the press and governments are happy to turn those who are the weakest and the most in need in our societies (the poor, the disabled, refugees) into targets it’s a message that we all very much need to hear right now. As Andrew Garfield said the lines of his beautiful, final speech directly to the audience standing with Prior’s chosen family, blessing us all with “More Life” it’s a message of hope that seared itself into my heart.
The world only spins forward. We can’t and won’t stop moving and we’re not about to be quiet any longer.