The first reaction to any adaptation of Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ is one of awe. Aside from its Pulitzer-winning status, the show is known for its length: the whole thing takes seven and a half hour in total. Andrew Garfield, when playing Prior on Broadway, conceded to hopes of never having to work as hard ever again, before invitingly comparing the experience of watching the show to ‘binging a Netflix series live’.
The Matter of Productions’ adaptation is on show at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre in fifth week of this Trinity term. It puts on show the first part of the play, initially titled ‘Millennium Approaches’.
Members of the cast portrayed anger excellently. It is perhaps unsurprising that a play set in a world where homosexuality was taboo, many closeted men resort to anger as a defence mechanism. Outstanding performances came from Eddie Margolis, playing Roy Cohn, a character inspired by the real-life McCarthyist lawyer and power broker of the same name. There was a touching scene when a bullying Cohn tried to order his doctor to publicly describe his AIDS as liver cancer. His characteristic forcefulness slid away inch by inch as the reality of the disease sunk in. The interactions between Margolis’ Roy and Connor Johnson’s in the backdoors of US politics, adds a political dimension to the story.
Zakkai Goriely had mixed success as Prior, the scion of a WASP family, now dying rapidly of AIDS. Prior is arguably the most difficult part given its versatility, requiring both emotional range and multi-layered nuance. Goriely’s performance was rich in flamboyance, but sometimes lacking in the depth and layering of emotions in the first act. The delivery of the line about ‘the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death’ was movingly done, inviting the audience into the fatal headspace Prior occupies. Goriely’s performance picks up in later acts of the evening, with some fascinating interactions between his Prior and Isabella Gilpin. The magic of these interactions is that Goriely and Gilpin, both portraying big characters in their own right, allowed as much space for acting as reacting. The result is a powerful relationship between a dying a friend seeking emotional support from a no-nonsense ex-drag queen.
Maya Jasinska was completely believable as a wandering Harper convinced that she was in Antarctica.
William Ridd Foxton delivered the most nuanced and thoughtful performance in the evening. His character, Louis, started off as the conflicted lover of the dying Prior and went on to have soul-searching introspections. Foxton’s range of emotions is amazing and his subtle portrayal skilfully draws the audience into the complicated inner world of Louis’.
Sound effect was expertly executed, with the sound of the angel looming over the auditorium, creating the effect of a prophetic angel visiting from above and swirling around the place.
The choice of having both the Pitt and Prior/Louis couples on stage simultaneously is interesting. The result is rather dazzling – both in terms of having the telling of their stories intertwined and the fact that one has to switch between angles to focus on different parts of the stage. Lighting assisted with this staging choice excellently, changing focus at times.
The description in its promotion of the play as ‘epic’ is in no way an understatement. Director Luke Dunne is passionate about the idea of how stigma and self-disgust socially enforced on queer bodies are disorienting and dark, whilst allowing the creation of queer identities and communities which are rich, colourful and magical even if they are borne by unbelievable pain. This idea certainly came across in the evening. And the ending does make one wonder: who are the angels?
Overall, the show was an impactful experience – certainly an evening of magic story-telling.