My thoughts about The National Theatre’s production of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes might be a little scattered. And you’re just going to have to deal with that. Way back when I was getting my MFA (which seems like forever ago, even though I know it wasn’t… but that’s neither here nor there), I wrote an awful paper about Tony Kushner’s play, so my hope is to do slightly better this time. It’s a hard play for me to write about because it’s such an ambitious work while at the same time being so personal.
Maybe the play’s ambition is why the opportunity to see it performed in its two-part eight-hour entirety has yet to present itself to me. Now thanks to the National Theatre Live, at last I’m getting to see a theatrical version of this play that I love so dearly. My only previous experience with Angels in America has been through studying it for a Contemporary Theatre class and, of course, seeing the HBO Miniseries. The Miniseries is incredible, by the way, and you should absolutely watch it if you haven’t.
But being fortunate enough to finally see this performed onstage, even broadcasted from London, was like discovering the play all over again. For this blog entry, I want to examine what struck me about seeing this version of Angels in America. In order of most important to the very most important, here is my list. I love a good list:
5. The Gritty Unrealness of the Stage. I was surprised at how dark this staging of Angels in America is. I have nothing to compare it to other than HBO’s version, which is an entirely different medium dealing with different paint and a different easel. Actually, maybe it’s more like comparing a painting (the stage) to photography (film). Not gonna lie. I’m out of my depth here. What I’m trying to say is the stage version of Angels has raw edges. You can see where the world of the play ends and the emptiness of the real world begins.
For instance, in the stage version you can always see where the light illuminating Harper’s fantasies disintegrates into darkness. In a turning point for Harper’s character, she finds herself in Antarctica in search of an Eskimo, even though her imaginary friend Mr. Lies tells her there’s no life in the South Pole. “I don’t understand why I’m not dead,” she says. “When your heart breaks, you should die.” Rather than the fully fleshed out vision of the South Pole provided by the magic of filmmaking in the HBO series, the far-reaching darkness of the stage swallows Harper up and makes her loneliness seem exponentially vast. It was heartbreaking.
Then there is the angel, Prior Walter’s vision, who in the HBO miniseries is in traditional white garb and has a celestial glow about her. Comparatively, the National Theatre dreams up an angel (played by Amanda Lawrence) in tattered and stained clothing, white spikey hair in disarry, carried by stagehands to create the illusion of flying. This is not the immaculate HBO vision; this angel has seen shit. And this is how the whole play felt for me. Worn. Stained. More real in its unrealness than a film could ever be.
4. The Contemporary Political Climate & Reagan Era Politics. I’m not going to go into this too much, because I think the parallels are obvious and plenty of other articles have addressed this already. This play seems very timely now, when American politics seem so fueled by fear of the Other. The scenarios in the play highlight the alienating divide between America’s two warring political parties, divides which have once again become enflamed in our contemporary world. The difficulty of our political system and identity is clearest in the play when we see Louis wrestling with the fact that he’s shacking up with a Gay Mormon Republican Lawyer. But he’s sensitive, he insists! Louis is the worst.
3. Mental Illness & Harper, My Hero. I’ve always loved the character of Harper. She breaks my heart, as I mentioned earlier. She’s an honest depiction of depression and loneliness, and while she is debilitated by her fear of leaving the house and her Valium addiction, she never seems completely helpless, even in her most depressive states. She is fighting. And dammit, in the end, I feel like she wins, and I wanted to stand up on my seat in the middle of the theater and shout, “YAAAAS, HARPER!” Because mental illness is hard to overcome, and I am so happy for her that I am brought to tears by the end of her story arc every time. Of course, it’s also really satisfying to see her tell off her shitty husband in the final moments of the play. Go, Harper, go!
Everything about Harper is just goodness. This isn’t news to me. So why am I mentioning it here? You might have picked up on the fact that in recent blog posts and podcasts (see the upcoming The Couple Next Door podcast—coming out on Monday—for more of this) the Squad has been lamenting the way mental health is portrayed in popular culture. Well, I feel like Tony Kushner nails it in Angels in America with Harper. As for the performances, Mary Louise Parker was an amazing Harper in the HBO miniseries and Denise Gough was equally brilliant in the National Theatre production. Not to minimize what each of these women are doing with the part, but I think Kushner gives them a lot to work with in the text. Honestly, if I were still into acting, Harper would be the dream role.
2. Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, and Those Gay Comments You’ve Heard About. So I knew when I wrote about Angels in America, I would have to say something about Andrew Garfield’s comments about being a gay man, which essentially boil down to him feeling like he understands what it means to be gay because he’s watched a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Andrew, honey, no. Why did you say this? I really want to excuse him for this; I really do, because it’s no secret that I adore Andrew Garfield and want to believe that his heart is in the right place. When he came out with an “apology” for his comments, I thought to myself, oh yes, good, he’s going to say something to explain this away and I don’t have to cringe every time I think of him and this play. But no, that’s not really what happened. I don’t feel like his comments clarified his original statement at all.
But, dammit, he is just so good in this. Ever since I saw Andrew Garfield in the highly underrated film Never Let Me Go, I’ve known that Garfield has an uncanny ability to perform pain, suffering, and despair in a way that makes you as an audience member feel deeply connected to that pain. At the same time, there’s something about his look and demeanor that is all innocence and joy. In other words, Garfield is the perfect actor to portray all sides of Prior Walter, a complicated an important character, the heart of the entire play. I’m not at all surprised that Tony Kushner himself personally asked Garfield to take on the role.
So my possibly unpopular opinion is this: Yes, Garfield should not have said what he said about being a gay man “just without the physical act.” But people say dumb shit all the time, and I don’t think he meant anything by it. At the end of the day, his work in this play is impressive, and I think maybe we should focus on that.
1. I'm Not Giving Up Hope. I said this play was ambitious but also personal, and this is where I get a little personal. This play made me cry. A lot. I cry a lot at a lot of things. I’m an easy crier. It’s fine. I’ve been crying a lot more than usual lately because two of my close family members are struggling with cancer. Unfortunately, I know a lot of readers will know what this feels like, and for that I am so sorry. I got some devastating news about a member of my family the day before I was scheduled to see Perestroika, the second half of this play. I was still excited about going, but I was also thinking, ugh, four hours of watching people go in and out of hospitals and struggling with disease might not be the best thing for my constitution right now.
But you know, I forgot how uplifting this play is. Years after reading this play for the first time for that MFA class, what stuck with me was the sadness. The hope I saw in the theater last night was a welcome surprise. I can’t express this hope any better than Kushner himself. So this is an excerpt of what Prior Walter says to the angels before he returns to earth:
“I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through worse, but… you see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony… they live… But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. So inadequate, but… Bless me anyway. I want more life. You haven’t seen what’s to come. You’ve only seen what you’re afraid is coming. Until it arrives—please don’t be offended but… all you can see is fear. I’m leaving Heaven to you now. I’ll take my illness with me, and. And I’ll take my death with me, too. The earth’s my home, and I want to go home.”
Angels in America is still playing at the National Theatre in London through August. Encore presentations of the National Theatre Live broadcast might be showing in your area. Check your local listings! Go see it before it's too late!
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.