Gary Abrahams’ pro­duc­tion of An­gels in Amer­ica is stark and shrewd, and has in He­len Morse a vir­tu­osic dis­play of re­strained act­ing, writes Peter Craven.

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Peter Craven rel­ishes An­gels in Amer­ica

An­gels in Amer­ica is the great play of 25 years ago and ar­guably the last great work of the American dra­matic con­scious­ness to go into the vast wa­ter sup­ply of the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. This is in large mea­sure be­cause, de­spite its vast length, it was filmed for tele­vi­sion by the great Mike Ni­chols, the man who had filmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? with Burton and Tay­lor and who did not live, any more than his mid­dle-aged star did, to leave a cin­e­matic record of his Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man Death of a Sales­man, widely re­garded as the great­est ever.

An­gels in Amer­ica is Tony Kush­ner’s col­lec­tive tragedy and fan­ta­sia – be­cause its vi­sion is more than tragic – of the AIDS epi­demic and what can be wrested from it. Ni­chols filmed it with Al Pa­cino as the evil Roy Cohn, dy­ing of an AIDS to which he won’t ad­mit, and Meryl Streep in a va­ri­ety of male and fe­male roles in­clud­ing Ethel Rosenberg, who Cohn had sent to the chair. They are per­for­mances of such myth­i­cal grandeur that ev­ery­thing af­ter­wards will be com­pared to them, and that’s prob­a­bly also true of Emma Thomp­son’s An­gel, who is a clar­ion call of clas­si­cism in a world of yab­ber­ing de­motic dark­ness.

Pa­cino’s per­for­mance as Cohn is such a tragic mask of the rav­aged hor­ror of Amer­ica’s ca­pac­ity to look past it­self that it is said to over­shadow even Nathan Lane’s, whose Roy Cohn for Bri­tain’s Na­tional Theatre is on its way to Broad­way and can be seen in the NT Live broad­cast show­ing now.

Not­with­stand­ing all of this – or any mem­ory of Neil Arm­field’s 1994 pro­duc­tion for Belvoir and the Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany with Jacek Ko­man – Gary Abrahams’ pro­duc­tion of this strange chiaroscur­o of a gay soap opera for a time of plague is a glow­ing and riv­et­ing piece of work per­formed with a sweep­ing au­thor­ity in the mod­est space of forty­five­down­stairs. Sig­nif­i­cant as­pects of the pro­duc­tion are as good or bet­ter than any­thing you would find else­where.

He­len Morse in the Streep med­ley of roles (rabbi, Mor­mon mother, Ethel Rosenberg and one more, the doc­tor) is stag­ger­ing, with a soar­ing au­thor­ity that con­firms all over again her rep­u­ta­tion as the great­est Aus­tralian ac­tress of her gen­er­a­tion (well, let’s face it, any gen­er­a­tion). And Grant Cartwright as the AIDS vic­tim is won­der­fully open and com­plex, il­lu­mi­nated by sun and darkened by hor­ror, but as good as you could hope to see. That is scarcely true of Brian Lip­son as Cohn, although his minc­ing ma­lig­nancy and man­ner­isms are more suited to this role than to many.

Mar­garet Mills has sound and fury as the An­gel as well as home­spun cred­i­bil­ity else­where, but not the sense of Other Worlds, that voice from the great be­yond that should com­mand. Still, this is a pro­duc­tion that is very strong and cred­i­ble at nearly ev­ery point; it roams and it ranges. Apart from Lip­son, the American ac­cents are car­ried ef­fort­lessly and id­iomat­i­cally and you get a real sense from Abrahams’ An­gels in Amer­ica, with its easy com­mand of camp­ness and flip­pant sex­ism and piety and its in­verse, of yes­ter­day’s world turn­ing into to­day’s.

Kush­ner’s play is more for­mi­da­ble than you re­mem­ber it be­cause it rep­re­sents such a com­plex di­alec­ti­cal ar­gu­ment with any sen­ti­ment you might re­duce it to and it is full of risky, bitchy hu­mour that takes in ev­ery­thing and has plenty of room for ev­ery naysay­ing perspectiv­e in any quar­ter of any hu­man heart. He is bril­liant in cap­tur­ing Mid­west­ern wry­ness and Mor­mon sen­si­bil­ity and the rea­sons the heart doesn’t want to know about. An­gels in Amer­ica is also an an­them for the com­mon per­son in which Kush­ner wants to cel­e­brate via el­egy the tears in things for any low­down de­gen­er­ate as well as the po­ten­tial il­lu­mi­na­tion.

The lat­ter as­pect of the play, its an­gelol­ogy, so to speak, is ex­tra­or­di­nary and is han­dled with a combinatio­n of great grace and im­mense dra­matic force. Had Kush­ner been read­ing the great scholar of the Kab­balah, Ger­shom Sc­holem, friend of Wal­ter Ben­jamin? Who knows. It’s as­ton­ish­ing the way he con­structs a kind of New York mythol­ogy that is es­sen­tially Jewish while hav­ing its own affin­ity with the home­spun Church of Lat­ter-day Saints in a kind of apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion – com­pat­i­ble enough with Harold Bloom’s sense of the gnos­tic know-how of the Land of the Free – but ef­fected, as if from nowhere, with ex­tra­or­di­nary dra­matic orig­i­nal­ity.

How on earth he man­aged to cre­ate a late-20th­cen­tury drama that is sym­bol­is­tic while also hav­ing snatches of susurrat­ing lingo that might have been out of Fos­ter Wal­lace, the lord only knows.

And Abrahams cap­tures all this, not flaw­lessly, but with an all-but-ab­so­lute steadi­ness and sure­ness of touch. Yes, it might have been bet­ter to have had a clas­si­cal ac­tress such as Jane Mont­gomery Grif­fiths as the An­gel, some­one who could sim­ply hit the note with flaw­less com­mand­ing rhetoric. And Lip­son has al­ways fan­cied him­self as hav­ing the kind of voice that, as Ken­neth Ty­nan said of Paul Scofield, can speak out of empty cis­terns and ex­hausted wells, or, if you like, a voice like James Ma­son’s, of sat­ur­nine and po­ten­tially sin­is­ter

mag­nif­i­cence, whereas he is in fact a char­ac­ter actor who imag­ines he has a voice of sin­gu­lar dis­tinc­tion.

As Cohn, he lurches be­tween Brook­lyn and the East End. Still, this de­ter­minedly ugly per­for­mance does have a bravura as­pect and catches some­thing of the self-des­e­crated agony of the char­ac­ter’s self­be­trayal. But to have found an Aus­tralian Cohn who would bal­ance Morse’s med­ley the way Pa­cino bal­anced Streep’s you would have to have a Ge­of­frey Rush or Richard Roxburgh in his high and ter­ri­ble Roger Roger­son mode.

Morse re­ally is that good. She works by prin­ci­ple of ab­so­lute re­straint, clair­voy­antly, in­vis­i­bly. She is a rev­e­la­tion as Ethel Rosenberg and she is ab­so­lutely cred­i­ble as the shrewd unlov­able Mor­mon mom who in­structs Cartwright that he just has to keep wrestling with that an­gel un­til it blesses him.

It doesn’t mat­ter that this pro­duc­tion is bare, and some­times barn-like. The flashes of il­lu­mi­na­tion from the mov­ing beds and the ab­so­lute authen­tic­ity of ev­ery atom of Cartwright’s per­for­mance are an in­vi­ta­tion to the in­ti­ma­tions of the gods. Cartwright’s Prior is not like Morse’s in­com­pa­ra­ble daz­zle, but it is a per­for­mance that could hold any stage in the world. This is a Ham­let of a call­ing card. Cartwright car­ries the full weight of Kush­ner’s dra­matic mythog­ra­phy and he does it un­der Abrahams’ di­rec­tion, like an actor turned into a prophet who has met his Si­nai and is equal to the climb. There are stretches of this im­per­fect pro­duc­tion of this gar­ru­lous, grandiose play where you say, “Oh yeah”, but there are more where you ex­claim, “My God.”


What a won­der­ful play An­gels in Amer­ica is, and how lucky we are to have Abrahams mar­shal a pro­duc­tion with a to­tal com­mand of its wry and lame American ver­nac­u­lar, its surg­ing grandeur and its lilt­ing sense of the Kad­dish that must be said for ev­ery black­hearted soul – and He­len Morse re­cites the He­brew with all its daz­zling glot­tal stops and as­pi­rants as if she had mas­tered it tele­path­i­cally in a for­mer life.

Don’t al­low your­self to be dis­cour­aged: every­one who cares about act­ing should see this pro­duc­tion for Morse and they should be proud that Cartwright is as good as he is in the cen­tral role. What a strange sad al­le­gory of our theatre it is that this smell-of-an-oilyrag pro­duc­tion of An­gels in Amer­ica is far bet­ter than we would nor­mally dare dream of on any of the main stages of the coun­try. It cap­tures rad­i­cally but se­curely the supreme un­can­ni­ness of this mu­tated piece of epic theatre, this moody and many-coloured cel­e­bra­tion of what looked for a be­wil­der­ing mo­ment like the dark pit

• of des­o­la­tion at the heart of a time of lib­er­a­tion.

PETER CRAVEN is a literary and cul­ture critic.

An­gels in Amer­ica’s Grant Cartwright and Si­mon Cor­field (above, from left), and He­len Morse (fac­ing page).

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