Despite having “America” in its title, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America owes a fair amount of its early development—and its high early profile—to Britain’s National Theatre. And as its first Broadway revival readies its opening in March, almost exactly 25 years since its original Main Stem run, it seems oddly fitting that this new production also comes from the National Theatre. This seems a fitting point to reflect on the trans-Atlantic theatrical exchange that forms an integral part of the history of this most American of plays, and in so doing reflect on the act of revival, theatrical history, and the art of theatrical progress.
The performance history of the play in its first few years is complicated, and spans four major cities: San Francisco, where Part 1, Millennium Approaches, premiered at the Eureka Theatre in 1991, along with a reading of the first draft of Part 2, Perestroika; Los Angeles, where Center Theatre Group premiered both parts in late 1992; New York City, where the two parts made their Broadway debut in the spring and summer of 1993; and London, where the National got Millennium out of the gate in early 1992, then launched both parts in repertory around the same time as the Broadway production. Millennium was very much still in development when it reached London (and Perestroika would take years to find its final form). To stage an untested American work of this scale at the National Theatre is indicative both of an understanding of its importance as a text and a recognition of Kushner’s significance as a playwright for the ages.
The genesis of the London production has become the stuff of theatrical legend: From artistic director Richard Eyre happening to read the play almost by accident as he found himself snowed in at home, to the tempestuous relationship between Kushner and director Declan Donnellan. Upon reading it, Eyre immediately though of Donnellan’s company, Cheek By Jowl, which was known, as the name suggests, for their work with Shakespearean texts. In choosing them to co-produce Angels, Eyre clearly had mind their knack sweeping narratives and their eye for the unconventional. They went on to create an inaugural production of Angels that was different in style and approach from its contemporaries but nonetheless played a part in creating the blueprint for the play.
As with everything in the storied gestation of Angels, the London production was not without its struggles. With the play unfinished at the time of production, Kushner was more “hands on” than a company used to Shakespeare was used to. For one thing, Shakespeare doesn’t give notes: One famous anecdote has director Donnellan and his partner and designer, Nick Ormerod, returning home one evening to a house covered in paper, thinking they’d been burgled, only to find that it was endless reams of faxes from Kushner with detailed notes on how they should fix the play. Donnellan joked that he’d only worked with dead writers previously—and that Kushner at one point looked set to join them.
Donnellan and Ormerod now remember the time fondly. “People often said, were you surprised by the success it had?” says Donnellan. “And the answer was no, not remotely. We knew it was absolutely extraordinary from the first moment we read it.”
While in the U.S., Angels had to rely on the vision of a series of regional theatres and Broadway producers, what allowed Angels to be staged in Britain at such an early stage of its development was that the National Theatre, by definition a state-subsidized company, had the space—artistically, budgetarily, and physically—to take on such and epic experiment. Angels became canonized not just for its take on politics, gay history, and the AIDS crisis but for its Brechtian theatrical form—a departure for American theatre at the time, and a challenge for London audiences, as well. Still, if anywhere was designed to mount such a play it was the National.
Staged in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre, a black box space holding 300 people with a different remit and identity from the traditional proscenium arch of the Lyttleton space (the site of the 2017 revival). The Cottlesloe has traditionally been the spot for new work at the National. As artistic director Nicholas Hytner has said, it is “bluntly the least demanding on the box office.” Angels thus had the best of both worlds at the National: the cultural prominence of the company, and the freedom of its experimental space.
Kushner was anxious about the play’s prospects in London. And the British press articulated some reservations at the play’s very description:
A three and a half hour play about AIDS is not the most inviting of prospects, nor its American author’s subtitle “A gay fantasia on National themes” the most seductive of theatrical come-ons. — Benedict Nightingale, The Telegraph, 1992
Despite such reservations, once they saw Millennium London critics were quick to recognize the importance of what Kushner and the National Theatre had done. At the Evening Standard, Nicholas deJongh wrote that “something rare, dangerous, and harrowing has erupted upon the London stage. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is like a roman candle hurled into a drawing room.” It wasn’t just London critics who were raving: The New York Times‘ Frank Rich praised the play’s “poetic and churning” theatrical world, a place, once entered, “simply cannot be escaped.” And Ian McKellen, at that year’s Tony Awards in New York, famously told the world, “You wait until it comes here—it’s going to win every Tony.”
The play was an important landmark in the National Theatre’s history, situating not only an American play, but an American gay play about AIDS, on the National stage (in both senses) was a brave and important move. Although it didn’t create a wave of imitators in theatre, Angels nonetheless impacted the British theatrical landscape with its staging, opening the potential for more contemporary plays of grand scale and scope. While he initially was quoted wondering “how British audiences will respond,” Kushner, later interviewed for the National’s Platforms series, asserted, “I now believe it works here.”
The original production formed a symbiotic relationship between the National Theatre and Angels. When the theatre included an extract of Angels in a performance celebrating its 50th anniversary, rumors of a revival first started to circulate. If the National was one of the few places who could have staged the play in the 1990s, in 2017 it’s one of the few places in London equipped to stage a revival on this scale in the current economic climate. The Lyttleton, known as the most challenging stage in London to put work on, is also one of few stages that could accommodate Elliott’s version of Angels, with its subsidized might. Its name and prominence probably didn’t hurt in attracting star names (Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield).
And what will audiences returning to Angels see? Elliott’s is a consciously different production than those that have gone before. In terms of physical staging, the move from the Cottesloe to the Lyttleton meant a shift in how London audiences would experience the play—more in line with the previous Broadway production, with its traditional proscenium arch staging and larger auditorium. While Elliott hasn’t directed the piece with “change for change’s sake” in mind, it is fair to say that her approach has been to rebuild the play from the ground up. This means a sweeping set which bears little resemblance to the National’s previously sparse “actor-driven” Cottesloe set, as well as a dramatic reimagining of the Angel. Directed at speed, it pulls the audience along before ripping the rug from under them—in the case of her staging, quite literally, as the vastness of the set is revealed. While she largely leaves Millennium as the character-driven affair that it is, some complex staging hints that all is not as simple as it seems. And her version of Perestroika, whichbuilds itself literally from the debris of Millennium and takes Kushner’s Brechtian epic stylings to the extreme, feels like it truly get to the heart of the play.
In flying Angels back to Broadway, the National Theatre production faces the challenges of any revival: changes in context, continued relevance, and the weight of expectation. Indeed it may appear an act of rare theatrical audacity for Britain’s National Theatre to take this most American of plays back to Broadway. But within the history of the play itself it’s a fitting bookend to the theatre’s history with the play.
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