Marcus Graham in Angels In America | Belvoir St Theatre (Pic: Heidrun Lohr)

It’s hard to know where to begin with seven hours of theatre. So let’s begin with reputation. In 1993, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes won a Pulitzer. A Tony, for best play. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, for same. The Drama Desk? Ditto. And a list of others as long as King Kong’s arm.

To the best of my knowledge, there have been relatively few dissenters from this propensity towards acclaim. And I’m not about to be one, either. It’s not that these works (part one is entitled Millennium Approaches; part two, Perestroika) are flawless. For my money, the first instalment is much more successful than the second. And there is a demanding quotient of grandiloquent indulgence, in the form of fire and brimstone, not to mention ebony and ivory angels. (Well, maybe not brimstone.) There is a degree of high camp that seems just for fun, too. Or maybe it’s there to confront and challenge the homophobic.

But Tony Kushner’s writing is, on the whole, plump and propitious. His dialogue is crisp, pointed and at all times advances something, whether that something be the plot (if this work can be spoken of in such conventional terms, which is doubtful), an idea, or an emotion. And there are salutary moments of penetrating insight and arresting philosophy in which time seems to slow, Dick Tracy-style, as if to allow us to absorb and savour them. Even throwaway lines can stop you in your cognitive tracks. For example, a character named Mr Lies, a veritable embodiment of way he’s talking about, challenges us to “respect the delicate ecology of your delusions”. The lies we tell ourselves often get us through, enable us to survive and become our truth and, as such, tantamount to the truth. Who can know this better than, say, holocaust survivors?

In another scene, Prior Walter, a key protagonist, proclaims: “I usually say fuck the truth, but mostly, the truth fucks you.” This wrestling with truth and reality, as intimated in the overarching title itself, calls on the story of Jacob wrestling with his conscience, or God, or whatever one choose to believe; a story universally and perennially emblematic of human struggle. Kushner is healthily obsessed with interrogating the nature of truth and reality and finds most of the virtue of both to be found in love. Even characters endowed with heinous traits, like the ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn, are afforded generous, heartrending opportunities for redemption, which can come through the smallest of gestures, no matter how big the trespass. Punishment may aways fit the crime, but forgiveness would seem to fit all crimes.

This was my first exposure to this epic work (on stage) and it’s virtually impossible for me to imagine any production, before or after, surpassing Eamon Flack’s investment of talent, for Belvoir. That talents aren’t just his own (as a director he brings none of the stylistic conceits, watermarks and signatures certain other fashionable peers attach), but emanate from a sidereal cast and crew.

Michael Hankin’s sterile, tiled set is a bold, reflective, slippery surface, much like the mirrors held up to the characters and, by implication, ourselves. It successfully represents hospital rooms, morgues, bathrooms and heaven. Mel Page’s costumes are imaginative and just as daring. Alan John’s composition and Steve Francis’ sound design work in seamless aural synergy to, at times, overwhelm that sense.

Paula Arundell is commanding as The Angel and accessible as Emily, the nurse cheerfully and compassionately attending AIDS patients. The versatile Mitchell Butel ads another finely-tuned string to his bow with his portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s conflicted lover. Marcus Graham towers as Roy M Cohn, the Reagan administration’s best friend and a power-mad, closeted, millefeuille of a man. Amber McMahon has climbed several rungs at once as Valium-popping, lapsed Mormon, Harper Amaty Pitt. She also gives a good turn as a homeless, schizophrenic woman. Luke Mullins is completely absorbing as Prior, a man as much afflicted by the disappearing act of his lover as news of HIV positivity.

Deobia Oparei is thoroughly entertaining and, as required, affecting as ex-ex-drag queen Belize and the ebullient Mr Lies. Ashley Zukerman, as the tormented Joseph Porter Pitt, wrestling with the truth of his sexual identity, versus the ‘reality’ of life as he’s constructed it, paints a perfect picture of fresh-faced decency. Topping the bill is the always extraordinary Robyn Nevin, playing Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Hannah Porter Pitt (Joseph’s mother) and the fearless Ethel Rosenberg, among others.

When you got to see Angels in America, you won’t be seeing a play. Or two. You’ll be having an experience. Note I say when, not if. You really must.

The details: Angels In America plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until July 14, and opens at the Theatre Royal on July 18 — tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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