“The whole world is crazy, why not me?” Prior Walters asks. It is into this flickering madness, the absolute loss of certainty that AIDS brought with it, that Angels in America places us. It is a play about a shattering, about delusions and dreams and desire, and the thin borders between them, something made absolutely clear by Ian MacNeil’s masterpiece of a set, which transforms over the course of the seven hours. It begins with spinning, brutalist rooms that echo the National Theatre itself, outlined with colour-changing neon: in one queasy scene in Central Park, Louis’ fingers slip along sickly neon green. But, as Belize says, “you do not live in America. No such place exists”, and such rigid delineation cannot be allowed to exist for long. Characters, initially, exist in spinning isolation, with fleeting moments of intersection, but they start to cross the in between spaces, the empty spaces between the walls, and are displaced, swapping sides of the stage. Space is unsteady, and, eventually, the blocks recede completely. Hospital beds are left free-wheeling, borderless, the layout of rooms changing from scene to scene.
MacNeil’s set demonstrates how well Angels works in a theatrical setting. Despite the daunting length of the play, being able to see the bodies, the visceral nature of their collapse, is important. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated by Andrew Garfield’s exquisite performance as Prior Walter. He exudes an aquiline poise, fluttering elongated gestures that become tattered and sharp-edged as the play progresses. His poise erodes, leaving him limping, drowning. Even as he struggles to remain upright, he embodies the delightfully high camp that characterises so much of the play. The ridiculousness of the supernatural works here because it is done with wry self-awareness, with deliberate bathos; otherwise, how would it be possible to cope with the immensity of the tragedy?
The stand-out comic star – an achievement in a play that consistently finds the humour in the devastating – is Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize. His wardrobe is a psychedelic work of art, and he matches it with a fantastically vibrant performance. He is full of immense sceptical silences, bringing the audience to laughter with a single raised eyebrow, but still manages to bring a real sense of heart. The whole cast multirole – playing angels, or figures in hallucination – and Russell Tovey does a particularly entertaining turn the original, medieval, Prior Walter. In his main role as Joe, Tovey is askew, adrift, drooping shoulders, shattered, angry outburst. He, and James McArdle as Louis, are brittle, taut, figures, strained with the asking of impossible things. Louis reels off vast quantities of information, the lexicons of philosophy, politics, science, religion and the legal world colliding, unspooling as they are manically tossed between characters. Harper (the captivating Denise Gough) does the same, giving us quivering bursts of information, an attempt to find something she can cling onto.
The set never overwhelms the actors, but carries with it moments of incongruous beauty – smoky, lilac-lit snow; the ceiling of heaven lit up like the inside of the TARDIS. Here, especially, sound is at its best in the subtle, not in the swelling rushes of music, but in the rustling of wings, and the murmur of New York traffic.
This is a play about difficult choices, about always having some kind of choice to make, but, as Garfield delivers Kushner’s final, painfully beautiful lines, in a moment of genuinely perfect theatre, we are left with only one choice: to live, to live the best lives we can.
Angels in America will be broadcast live to cinemas around the UK and internationally, with Part One broadcast on 20 July, and Part Two shown on 27 July.