Angels in America (5 stars)

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Steve Cramer revisits Angels in America, Parts 1 & 2 at the Citz, and finds a compelling night of theatre

Theory without practice, like sex without love, is a pretty barren affair. But a combination, in both cases, is problematic in a secular age. This seems to be the bottom line of Tony Kushner’s mighty, epoch-defining epic, a sprawling theatrical poem of the 90s, which despite a brave and admirable film version, can only be fully felt in the theatre. For, like theatre at its best, Kushner’s play is a ravishing, sensual playground for ideas.

In it, we meet Prior (Mark Emerson) and Louis (Adam Levy) a gay New York couple of the mid 80s whose happiness is brought to an end when Prior discovers he is HIV positive. Unable to stay the course because of the first of many destructive choices of the mind over the body (and vice-versa) in the play, Louis departs. He finishes up in a relationship with Joe (Jo Stone-Fewings), a repressed gay man troubled by his Mormon Republicanism, who abandons his fragile, agoraphobic wife Harper (Kirsty Bushell). This brings his devout mother (Ann Mitchell) to town. Meanwhile the wicked McCarthyite reactionary and real-life figure of Roy Cohn (Greg Hicks), a prophet of the Neo Conservative darkness which began enshrouding the world in the 80s, also lies dying of AIDS, and is attended by his endlessly patient nurse Belize (Obi Abili), the only character without a declared religion, but the richest in grace. Oh, and there’s an Angel (Golda Rosheuvel), but more of her later.

Taking place over two nights and nigh on eight hours, there might still be room for shock in some quarters at the play’s frankness in dealing with sex, politics and sexual politics, if the ladies who tutted away in front of me are anything to judge by. That they returned again the next night, as if to be really sure they were shocked, might be testament to the play’s power. Angels takes us on a journey into the many subjectivities of the characters, but also affirms that each individual mind is part of the collective whole of human experience, as the characters bump into each other in their dreams, sharing them, then departing.

The play also concerns itself with language, the baseline of human consciousness and existence, about which the characters are all in denial, from Cohn’s refusal of the term ‘homosexual’ as a label to Harper’s sarcasm at the concept of ‘unspeakable beauty’. All the characters speak incessantly, but evade words. Most, too, are in the midst of a struggle between the imposed language of religion and their own subjectivities and spiritual needs. The Christians witness angelic apparitions, because their religion allows them Gods in human form. Their journeys are about finding forms of the narrative closure Christianity offers within their subjectivities. The Jewish characters, on the other hand, find, instead of suffering and closure, pain, guilt and learning for the next phase.

Daniel Kramer’s production of this slightly revised text seems to liberate his actors to tremendous effect. All the performances are strong, while Soutra Gilmour’s endlessly diverse and inventive set works wonders with its sweeping locales, never more so than in the moment where Cohn’s subjectivity is revealed by a backdrop illustrating the monstrous, paranoid individualist apocalypse he sees in those around him. At this point, and throughout, Hicks is a riveting presence, while bravura performances from Bushell and Abili are underpinned with astute observation. Go, and find redemption or knowledge, but most of all, find praxis.

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 12 May

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