A few weeks ago I had found myself lucky enough to catch the Broadway revival of Angels in America, the show finally returning to the Great White Way after decades. The show’s ridiculous length, epic nature, and intense subject matter make it a bit unwieldy for some, but for many it was the play of their generation – a generation of men and women wiped away by the AIDS crisis and forgotten about by the government and the straight, and white, majority. It was a play for a world gone mad, in the most biblical sense of the word.
However, upon watching Marianne Elliott’s mad, grand vision of Tony Kushner’s work unfold, I couldn’t help but feel struck by how weirdly hollow the work felt in some places. I later reviewed the show and found it difficult to articulate just what about it made it so strange to me. I knew this text pretty well and thought the message that Kushner wrote in his seven-and-a-half hour fantasia was an important one. However, it felt like something was lost in translation when the show was first staged at the National Theatre and then subsequently brought over.
It felt like watching an outsider’s idea of America, which is probably what made the show a bit empty in some spots for me. The endless visions made real seemed to be nothing but that – hallucinatory fever dreams of a mind trying to make sense of something. I guess in some ways Kushner’s writing is like that, but it seemed very oddly assembled and in some ways Elliott mistook intimacy for grandeur and grandeur for intimacy. The ever-expanding space that her design team created made the work feel overwhelming in some places, and the “heaven as a theatre” metaphor felt somewhat cheap in some respects.
As for the cast, they did a pretty outstanding job aside from Andrew Garfield’s bizarre drag queen accent. Someone had told me that they found it quite offensive and it was easy to see why. I can imagine some directorial motivations for having Garfield keep the accent, but couldn’t it just have been easier to understand that he was a gay man by quite literally everything else that states him to be? His partner, Louis, inexplicably speaks like a normal New Yorker, albeit that’s including his philosophical and political rantings.
All in all, the production felt very much like an outsider’s perspective on a truly American work, in a way that was detrimental to the overall dramaturgical integrity of the show. While new visions are needed in the theatre, it was a baffling one that overtook this British production. Perhaps a new dramaturge was needed on the production, or a more multilayered understand of why this play became the work for its generation – it rocketed into the American canon from a place of deep, palpable pain. That pain seemed to be oddly absent in this production, an otherwise stunning and engaging piece of stagecraft that very few can rival in their execution. If only that execution was much cleaner.