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Angels in America review

by: Marcus J Freed - Last updated: 2007-07-19

Angels In America - Tristram Kenton

Angels in America pic: Tristram Kenton

“God is the flaming Hebrew letter Alef” shrieks one character in this two-part, Pulitzer-prizewinning epic.

Angels in America is a unique theatrical event and an absolute treat for any theatregoer. With a running time of just under eight hours, it is longer than most Yom Kippur services but a lot more fun.

The frenetic narrative is set in the heart of 1980’s New York where three stories are intertwined to give a broad picture about the AIDS epidemic. Harper and Joe are newlywed Mormons who struggle through the revelation that the latter is actually homosexual, while the Jewish Louis is faced with emotional complexities that arise as a result of his lover Prior suffering from AIDS. Roy Cohn is a satanic republican lawyer who insists on staying firmly in the closet, even threatening his overwhelmed doctor to pronounce that his skin lesions are the result of liver cancer.

Daniel Kramer directs with skill and dexterity, beautifully juxtaposing the narratives in a way that brings new meaning and depth to Tony Kushner’s text. The acting is sometimes a little loud and highly strung, but there’s little else you can do with a text that combines a Mormon visitors centre, a private hospital and an angel who screams out the words to the kaddish prayer.

Louis is a mother’s boy who is constantly searching for father figures and finds substitutes through his homosexual liaisons. The Mormon Joe, played by the earnest Jo Stone-Fewings, is similarly aggravated by the absence of fatherly love, plunging him headlong into his first gay affair. Likewise, the talented Greg Hicks gives a potent performance as Roy Cohn, giving paternal advice with a sadistic aplomb.

For all of it’s Reagan-era politics, gay culture and high camp, Angels in America is one of the most important pieces of Jewish theatre to have been written in the past 30 years, even though it isn’t usually included in that canon. Adam Levy portrays the emotionally weak Louis, distanced from the spiritual tradition of his ancestors and self-exiled from the support of a committed relationship. He eventually achieves a kind of redemption through a powerful scene where he battles his way through difficult aramaic words to speak one of the most important Jewish prayers ever written. The play alludes to the religious-secular divide, hints of divine retribution, and sets the entire story within a thoroughly Jewish context.

Golda Rosheuval has appeared in the past with the American composer Jason Robert Brown, who has hailed her as having one of the best voices on the planet (or a similar superlative). Her performance as the angel packs a strong vocal punch, never tiring of the demanding text and often taking full command of the stage.

It was Ancient Greece and Rome where theatre was a key part of religious ritual, but Kramer’s production beautifully brings these two forces back into play, at least if you are looking for it. Kushner’s play has a beautiful take on the famous wrestling match between Jacob and the Angel, as told in Chapter 32 of Genesis. In this production the angels suffer as much as the humans, but everyone receives a powerful blessing by the end.

There are touching performances from Obi Abili as the outrageous drag-queen Belize, Kirsty Bushell as the disturbed Harper, the distinguished Ann Mitchell as Hannah and a Mark Emerson as the long-suffering Prior.

The production is co-produced by Headlong Theatre (formerly The Oxford Stage Company) and they have made a brave decision to stage a revival both parts of this rarely-produced play. We can only thank them for it. 

Until July 22nd

Ticket information:

Telephone 020 8741 2311
Website www.lyric.co.uk