By Caitlin Scarr (2013)
Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is the seminal play by award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. Australian audiences are, for the first time in about 20 years, being given the opportunity to see both parts in reparatory in Belvoir’s 2013 season. It’s a mammoth task.
The thing about Belvoir’s production of Angels In America is that it transcends time. Yes, it’s set in mid-80s America, a world away from Sydney 2013. Yes, most people our age have no concept of the impact of the HIV epidemic and corresponding fear that swept through mid-to-late 80s. And many (myself included) probably have no idea who Ethel Rosenberg is. Thank you google via smart phone at intermission.
But you know what? None of that matters. ‘Cause Belvoir’s production is, quite frankly, fucking phenomenal.
Running at seven hours, three and a half hours per act, it asks a lot of its audience: sit quietly, absorb and experience. And there is a lot to absorb. Director Eamon Flack has taken on the behemoth production with all the bells and whistles required for such an epic.
The set design alone is spectacular, with shining, reflective tiles from floor to ceiling that at once reference waiting rooms, hospital clinics, and the New York subway. Add to that the carefully crafted lighting design, and a honed sound design, and the technical aspects of the production have not only been given room to breathe but to actually shout out. They deserve recognition. For anyone fortunate enough to see part 1, the ending will take your breath away. On the night I saw it, the audience got to their feet and cheered. Literally cheered. Name another performance you’ve seen that happen…
Part Two is less precise and honed, with a slightly slower pace, but it is easy to forgive. The story becomes more abstract, as characters begin to lose the grip between reality, fantasy, and fever-induced hallucination.
One of the gems in this production is the calibre of the performances. If you ever want to see an ensemble show, you’ll see it here. Actors live and breathe a multitude of characters and personas, as indicated in Kushner’s fantastic script, and each performer does their utmost to bolster the action.
There are a few weak points: DeObia Oparei is fantastic as Belize, but occasionally steps just an inch too far, and Marcus Graham, as Roy Cohn, seemed to struggle ever so slightly with the constant barrage of dialogue delivered by his high-flying character. That said, there are no weak performances in this production.
Paula Arundell is sensational as the Angel of America, while Amber McMahon and Ashley Zuckerman bring a nice sensitivity and irreverence to their characters. Outstanding performances are delivered by Robyn Nevin, Mitchell Butel, and Luke Mullins, who carries the entire show deftly on his shoulders.
Ultimately, Belvoir’s Angels In America is a hell of a production, and one that should not be missed. Despite references to out-dated 1980s technology, a virus whose reputation has dulled since its discovery, and a world full of views that seem ancient, the production works for one key reason that usurps time and place: it is about humanity. Beautiful, painful, funny, mortal humanity.