Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Angels in America Part Two (Perestroika) - Belvoir (at Theatre Royal)

Having now seen both plays in this two-part cycle - or epic or whatever you want to call it - I cannot say I am anywhere nearer to understanding what it was all about. The plays had what I can only call a psychedelic quality to them - in the Belvoir's production at any rate. What the audience experienced was bright, shiny, kaleidoscopic, messy to the point of disjointedness, but almost always enthralling, (the one exception would be the opening speech of the second play, given by the oldest Bolshevik; at the performance we went to the actor in question seemed distractingly concerned that her stage beard was about to come off).

I suppose the central theme is the biggest of them all - what it means to be human, what life is meant for, the old 'what is it all about' conundrum. Within this sprawling context, the play queries America, ('lawyers are the high priests of America', one character claims); religion; politics and the human need for a theory on which to model the state and its institutions; modern life; and how to love. Its main characters include an AIDS sufferer; a Mormon, married homosexual, (plus his wife and mother); a charming coward; a 'heart of gold' Queen who is also a black male nurse - he believes that heaven will be like San Francisco and in it 'race, taste and history will finally be overcome'; a corrupt and powerful lawyer; and a company of angels who claim that 'ecstatics are the engine of the universe' and that god has abandoned them - and the world - and who demand that the human race stops travelling and striving for progress so insistently. Stasis is what they want but, in spite of an angelic edict to 'Submit', the humans pay no heed, choosing life instead, with all its drawbacks.

The cast of the Belvoir production were superb, particularly Luke Mullins, Paula Arundell, (who I'm sure I remember, wearing much smaller wings, as Ariel in a Bell Shakespeare Tempest), Amber McMahon and Mitchell Butell. Interestingly, the nurse character was played by an Englishman - is it possible that there are not enough homegrown Australian-African actors - and, while he was good and raised lots of laughs, his acting style was a bit at odds with that of his colleagues and he seemed unable to calibrate his approach to their more sophisticated, subtler ways of acting. The set in both productions was absolutely minimal - white tiled floor and walls, with a few folding chairs coming and going, plus beds rolled on and off when necessary, and a recessed alcove, also white tiled. This last aspect was put to particularly good use in the second play: lit from within it acted as a frame to scenes that were set to evoke memories of medieval religious paintings.

Angels in America is not a small-minded pair of plays. It is excessive and untidy and possibly a bit inclined to be portentous. At times the references to events that were contemporary at the time of its writing give it a slightly dated feel. The abandonment of any attempt to tie up loose endings is annoying - the Mormon homosexual character is simply cut out of the final scenes, without any resolution or explanation. Nevertheless both plays are written with a confident energy that carries you along, particularly in good productions like the Belvoir's. Partly thanks to the script itself, partly thanks to Eamon Flack's as always excellent direction, the hours flew by, both in Part One and Part Two. Better still, when they were over, what I'd seen still engaged me and even now scenes and episodes continue to resonate in my mind.

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