Angels in America. Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Live relay from the National Theatre.

James McArdle as Louis and Nathan Stewart Jarrett as Belize. Production photograph by Helen Maybanks.

“I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.”
Belize. Perestroika. Act 4 scene 3.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is an extraordinary piece of writing, “a gay fantasia on national themes” conceived on an epic scale. It consists of over eight hours of theatre, spread across two plays, telling the story of the early years of the AIDS crisis in America in a way which is both deeply personal and political. It starts traditionally enough before veering off into fantasy and becoming gloriously theatrical in a way that is too rare on stage. There is some blistering dialogue, giving opportunities for the actors that they might wait a lifetime for. It is a flawed masterpiece which overreaches itself, and is certainly in need of an edit, but given what is offered to us it is churlish to say so. We are lucky to see it on stage again as it needs considerable resources and actors of rare talent to do it justice. I missed the National Theatre’s original production back in the nineties and I have been waiting to see it ever since. Given the speed at which it sold out so has everybody else. Thankfully I had never read it and had only a general idea of what was going to happen which made it very exciting. The writing constantly surprised me. It is fearlessly emotional and theatrical, taking unexpected twists and turns, and I was able to relish each of them with a fresh eye. It is an experience so overwhelming to sit through that, with hindsight, it is frustrating that it is not perfect, which reminded me of the quote from Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, “ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Production photograph by Helen Maybanks

As Prior Walter Andrew Garfield gives one of the greatest stage performances that I have ever seen. Prior’s AIDS diagnosis wrecks his relationship and his settled, controlled life. He is vulnerable, touching, stylish, funny, brave and sometimes desperately angry. It is a part that he will remember, and be grateful for, for the rest of his life. His boyfriend Louis simply can’t cope with what he knows will be ahead of him and bails out. This is a huge betrayal at a time when the gay community were forced to help each other in the face of society’s fear and indifference. I really felt for Louis. He always has something to say about politics, about caring from a distance, but when he is expected to show up and demonstrate some personal feeling in terrible circumstances he finds that he can’t, however much he wants to, and it tears him apart. James McArdle makes him just as funny, poignant and frustrating as he needs to be. We need to sympathise with him while not forgiving him for his betrayal and we do.

This speech, spoken by Roy Cohn a ruthless, amoral lawyer, who is also diagnosed with AIDS is one of the plays darkest moments. It is a terrifying performance by Nathan Lane. He is a Broadway legend but I think I would have known that without being told. It is impossible to watch him without feeling a sense of foreboding.

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels: “gay”, “homosexual”, “lesbian.” You think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?”

The hapless, closeted Mormon Joseph- who is way out of his depth when his ambition and frustration lead him to get involved in Roy’s shady dealing- is beautifully played by Russell Tovey. He is in the process of destroying his wife Harper’s life and sanity by being unable to give her the intimacy and attention that she craves and his religion is a source of guilt and confusion rather than comfort. The production gave us a sharper, gutsier Harper from Denise Gough than I would have liked but I can see why that decision was made- especially in the second play.

The character who gave me most pleasure was Belize, an openly gay, transvestite nurse who is brim full of intelligence and New York sass. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is a breath of fresh air amongst all the suffering and angst, a wise voice who we can rely on to survive. He can speak volumes with a slight turn of the head or a raised eyebrow and I just loved him, and his character, to bits.

The title mentions angels and my goodness there is a spectacular one. Some fine puppetry, designed by Finn Caldwell and Nickine puppetry, provides her wings and Amanda Lawrence provides her dark heart and flamboyant soul, bringing Prior Walter’s delusions to life.

Angels in America must be one of the most difficult directing jobs you could possibly have, even with all the resources of the National theatre at your fingertips but Marianne Elliot is used to big challenges and the long sequences of short scenes are quickly and economically staged allowing the performances to shine. The only part which I might hope to see working better one day was the heaven scene in Perestroika. I would have liked a bit more speed and spectacle at that point. Maybe I just loved that angel too much…………………

There is so much more that I could say. It was just extraordinary……. it really was.

Man and Superman. National Theatre Live Relay. 14-05-15

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Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes. Production photograph by Alastair Muir.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

Watching the National Theatre’s wonderful production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman reminded me of just why I have loved Bernard Shaw since I first read Caesar and Cleopatra at the age of fifteen. His writing still sings and jumps off the page at you, as modern and edgy as anything being written now. Man and Superman was first staged in 1905 and that is genuinely hard to believe. It is utterly unlike anything else that was being written at the time, original and even strange in some ways, especially when the Don Juan in Hell act is performed as part of it, which happened for the first time in 1915. I hope that nobody ever suggests leaving it out again after seeing this new production. This is a big, bold, confident play- like its author- and it has some penetrating things to say about society, love and marriage that are as relevant today as they ever were. It is sharp, wise and very funny. Yes it is long- maybe too long- but if it is done properly the time flies by. It’s a three course meal laid out on stage rather than the luxury stage canapes that we have become accustomed to snacking on. Shaw knew how to entertain and amuse an audience and get his points home by stealth and he is a master of setting out an argument clearly. For a long time his plays were unfashionable and it is good to see him back where he belongs in recent years- right at the centre of things.

Jack Tanner is a very long part and you watch Ralph Fiennes’ masterful performance in awe at what he is doing. He is in complete control of both the character’s arguments within the text and the character- something that is essential with Shaw and by no means easy to manage. Shaw’s characters always have a viewpoint and that is as important as their reality. I just don’t know how Ralph Fiennes did it- but I daresay being one of the finest stage actors of his generation helped. With a life force like that on stage beside them it was a tough job for the other actors to stand their ground but I’m glad to say they did. Indira Varma’s Anne Whitefield is going to be a good match for Jack- she understands him and will give as good as she gets, and the final scene where she finally achieves what she has always wanted was beautifully played between the two of them. She is a strong, beautiful presence on stage and I am always glad to see her. There was some very funny, stylish work from Tim McMullen as the brigand Mendoza and The Devil which made a perfect wry, laid back contrast to Jack. He had some of the best lines and made the most of them. I was very pleased to see Faye Castelow making the most of a nice part on a big stage having seen her give a storming performance as Ruth Ellis in our local theatre. Violet has a strong character and some lovely moments and she more than held her own. Elliot Barnes-Worrall was a lovely chirpy contrast to everyone else as Straker, just as he should be, and it was good to see Christine Kavanagh giving a very well judged, stylish performance as Mrs Whitefield. The whole play was very well cast.

The director Simon Godwin has done a wonderful job, although I have a feeling that Ralph Fiennes was on fire to do this one and didn’t need much advice. Having said that I’m sure that one of the reasons that everyone else didn’t get lost in Jack Tanner’s slipstream and Shaw’s arguments were able to shine so brightly was thanks to his good sense and advice. The updated setting was very cleverly managed. It had a timeless feel in spite of the updating- nothing grated with the dialogue at all- and the costumes were particularly carefully judged. The design fills the stage of the Lyttelton with a breathtaking simplicity in the Don Juan in Hell scene and never gets in the way. Rightly, Bernard Shaw was a great fan of his own work and I think he would have absolutely loved this. I don’t wonder it is sold out. If they tour it I shall see it again- sometimes a live relay just isn’t enough.

People. Leeds Grand Theatre. 7-11-13

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Alan Bennett’s latest play, People, is quite different from the plays he has written in recent years. It is a glorious romp stuffed full of one liners, a hilarious seaside postcard of a play, but one which also has attitude, thoughtfulness and compassion. It is the kind of mixture which only Alan Bennett could write. Dorothy Stacpoole, an elderly former model, fashionista and a peeress in her own right, has been festering away in the crumbling Stacpoole stately pile for a very long time, along with her companion Iris, in spite of the efforts of her archdeacon sister to prize them out. The moment of crisis has arrived when something must be done about it and there is talk of selling the house to the National Trust or a consortium who will move it, lock stock and Dorothy, from South Yorkshire down to the south of England. Neither of these are what Dorothy wants and thanks to a chance encounter with an old flame some rather more interesting events intervene as the filming of a down market porn film in the house opens the two ladies eyes to new possibilities in life and shows them a way out of their isolation and inactivity. This is vintage Bennett territory as institutions are slyly, but not unkindly, mocked and social assumptions are questioned. Exactly why are the middle classes prepared to be herded round the shell of somebody’s former life with volunteers in every room waiting to give out information, prepared to give their time for only the promise of “a cup of tea and a flapjack”? Do we really know why we are there? There are some bizarre things happening in what has come to be known as Britain’s “heritage industry”. I walked around one of them in York this summer, “York’s Chocolate Story”, and there are many more examples. The play’s title is a reminder that people are a nuisance. The first thing that any family who makes enough money does is buy themselves space from other people, and even space from each other. Few of us would share our homes and allow people to traipse around our property, however sprawling, unless there was no alternative. The Yorkshire phrase, always uttered with dread, “living on top of each other” sums it up perfectly. The title is also a reminder that people come first, they deserve care and respect. Dorothy matters, she is not just a eccentric turn for the benefit of a stream of visitors and during the play we see her reclaim her self respect and her dignity.

Sian Phillips is an absolute knockout as Dorothy. In a play where the past and the present intertwine it is important that we can see both the elderly Dorothy and the elegant model that she once was as she comes out of her shell. It is a performance of great wit and style. Brigit Forsyth is a delightful contrast to her as Dorothy’s companion Iris, shuffling around and delivering some of the best lines with perfect timing and the two of them make a great mischief making partnership. Selena Cadell also gives a very sharp and precise performance as June the archdeacon and the large cast moves the whole play along with great skill and speed. The end part of the play is a marvel of stagecraft and timing.

Bob Crowley is one of our most experienced set designers and he has clearly had a wonderful time designing the wreckage of a great house which becomes a character in its own right, as it needs to. Richard Eyre as director knows exactly how to make Alan Bennett’s work shine after working with him so often and gets the tone of the play exactly right- a delicate business when it comes to Bennett’s writing.

There was a full house for the matinee that I saw and most of those in the audience had had their tickets for a long time. They were older people but sharp, lively and engaged and there was a buzz among them which matched the energy on stage. We went home feeling energised and ready to sing Downtown to anyone who would listen. At the end of the play Dorothy says, “Let lost be lost. Let gone be gone, and not fetched back”. We all have a future, short or long and it is this mindset which allows Alan Bennett’s writing to continue to sparkle. We don’t have to forget the past but we don’t have to allow ourselves to be fossilised within it either. The English have a tendency to be rather too fond of doing that. We should all be thankful that Alan Bennett is still around to point these things out and shake us up a bit. No wonder he is so much loved………. well maybe not so much by the National Trust after this one but the rest of us are still cheering.

Othello. Live relay from the National Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 26-09-13

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Olivia Vinall as Desdemona and Adrian Lester as Othello.
Production photograph by Gary Calton.

Richard Eyre has set the 2013 National Theatre production of Othello in a modern military garrison out in the middle east and the new setting fits it perfectly. It is tawdry, claustrophobic and full of tension. The barrack room drinking scene is perfectly choreographed by the fight director Kate Waters and there is a real sense of danger. Something is going to give- this is a place where bad things are waiting to happen. Richard Eyre’s direction is detailed and insightful. Everything has been very clearly thought through and there are no jarring notes. The verse speaking is exemplary. It is all completely believable and horribly real. There are a few minor decisions- just a few- that I might have questioned, but the choices made for the production all work. I am certainly not claiming to know better!

The character who benefits most from the change in setting is Rory Kinnear’s outstanding Iago. He is conniving, bitter and damaged by long army service which he does not feel has been properly rewarded. He is a second rate soldier who has already had more promotion than he deserves, he will never be anything else and it rankles. He plays on the weaknesses of others without any compunction- a man with no moral compass. This is Iago’s play, whatever the title says, and he is fascinating to watch.
Adrian Lester has a potentially harder job in this setting as Othello. Playing a modern general he cannot borrow his charisma from sweeping around in fine robes, he has to find it in himself and his own bearing as an actor. Adrian Lester has natural authority on stage and he uses this to great effect in the early scenes, creating a portrait of a charismatic leader who attracts admiration and respect easily from those around him. He is at ease in his own skin, happy and self assured. The man who Iago could never be. When this fine man falls apart, to the accompaniment of some of the best verse speaking you are ever likely to hear, it is painful to watch, as it should be. We feel the loss of a great spirit. It should never have happened but the clarity of the two central performances leave us in no doubt about how it did.
Olivia Vinall is a fine Desdemona, feisty, full of life and completely riveting in her death scene as we share her terror. It is easy to see why Othello was attracted to her. Few things are more satisfying than seeing a young actor get the break that they deserve and I’m sure that there will be a lot more fine performances ahead from her. I liked Nick Sampson too as Lodovico- a small part but his truthfulness and style was important as a representative of the Venetian court. Emilia is one of my favourite characters and Lyndsey Marshall was very convincing as an embittered army wife and soldier who had taken too much bullshit from those around her, especially her husband, for too long. The scene between Emilia and Desdemona before Desdemona’s death was beautifully done. I wish that Tom Robertson as Roderigo had been allowed to be less foolish and more touching- he is a fool but he is a fool for love of Desdemona and it is those genuine feelings that Iago makes use of.

This is a terrific production, well deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it. I’m glad that I was able to see it, even if only by live relay. I would have loved to be sitting in the Olivier.