Thursday, 2 November 2017

Angels in America by Tony Kushner | Play Review

Book: Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Author: Tony Kushner

Publisher: Nick Hern Books

Pages: 333 Pages

Format: Paperback

Source: Bought at Foyles at Charing Cross

America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell. 
Originally premiered in Britain at the National Theatre, London, where it won the Evening Standard Best Play Award, Tony Kushner's Angels in America went on to win two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 
This volume contains both Part One: Millenium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika, and was published alongside a new production in 2017 at the National Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Nathan Lane, James McArdle and Russell Tovey. 
'It ranks as nothing less than one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century.' New York Observer

An epic play that impossibly is so long, but so tightly written. I've been unable to write this review for months because I don't know how to put these thoughts I've been having into words. I don't know how to say this without raving but this is such an important play, and I can't believe it took me this long to actually read.

I went into this with no knowledge of the actual play, and no real expectations. I just knew that it had sold out it's run at the National Theatre in London, and it had won the Pulitzer. That was it. I was not aware of how rich, and incredible, and absolutely brilliant this play is. I don't know how to review this. The way that Kushner writes about these character, about how they are flawed, but beautiful, and they are absolutely human is spectacular. The way he mixed magical realism and the angels is seamless and shocking -- in a story where the reality is brutal and horrific and so hyperreal, I expected the angels to be comical, cartoonish. I expected them to be comic relief. I could not have been farther from the truth. The Angel, and later in Perestroika Angels plural, are so vital to the plot and to the stories of the characters. They completely elevate the text in a way that is beyond words.

I could spend days on this play. I could write essays on this -- which i'm doing now. But there are some things in specific that I want to talk about. One of the things that I can't get out of my head is the quote Louis says in Part One: Millenium Approaches, when he goes on about racism and racial struggles in America and claims that there is no spiritual or racial past. He says:

There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.

I cannot get this out of my head. I swear to God I don't agree with Louis on most things, but this. I understand what he's getting at. There is only the political in this country, and I think that Kushner's reduction of the country's racial history to this point is so fascinating. The idea that all things in America, even ideologies and prejudices, were brought to this country politically, is an idea that while I don't fully agree with, I understand it. Louis is a problematic character, but I see more of myself in him than I really care to share. His inability to cope with illness, his fear of being left alone, and especially his line to the rabbi at the beginning of Millennium Approaches: "I'm afraid of the crimes I may commit".

Another part I want to talk about are the angels and Prior's prophecy. There are plot spoilers ahead. Warning you now.

The prophecy that is given to Prior is awful, and it comes about because Heaven is in a state of abandon and disarray. God has left, abandoned his angels and his world, and Prior's prophecy is for the world to stop moving, migrating, and progressing. Maybe, since movement has caused God to leave, stillness will bring him back. This is a troubling idea, which is brought up throughout the whole play. There's Sister Ella Chapter, who has become a real estate agent because it's "a way of saying: Have a house! Stay put!" There's the start of Part 1, where we see the funeral of Louis' grandmother, an Eastern European Jew who immigrated to the US. We are literally seeing the funeral of an immigrant. There are so many conversations on this topic, and it's inescapable, especially when the final act of Perestroika comes along.

And the line that kills me, that made me cry the first time reading it, and that made me sob when I saw it live, was Prior rejecting the prophecy. "I want more life", he says. He doesn't care that his standard of living is declining because of his health. He wants more life, and he wants movement and progression, and I was so struck by the simplicity in which he says this. "I want more life."

And then the play ends with an address to the audience, that people won't die silent deaths anymore, and that one day we will all bathe in the fountain of Bethesda and become clean again. And then Prior, still a prophet, blesses the audience, in the most beautiful way i've ever seen a piece of theatre end:

"I bless you: More Life."

All I can say at this point, is let the great work begin. 

Thanks for reading, and please let me know if you've read this. I cannot wait to discuss this play with more people.

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