Poetry in Motion [by James Wenley]
“The Great question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come”
That’s a grab quote from the start of Part Two. Alison Bruce, donning a wispy beard and wrinkles as “the world’s oldest Bolshevik”, delivers an outsider’s critique of modern America as well as developments within the Soviet Union. This character does not return, but his question hangs over the sequel, titled Perestroika, referencing Gorbachev’s political reforms of the Soviet Union. While Kushner takes on an epic expanse of thematic territory, it’s the possibility (or is that inevitability?) of change – deconstruction and reconstruction- that the characters are compelled to obsess over, the fantasia’s major note. America was a country made out of thin air by words – nothing is fixed, chaos awaits.
All week I had been impatiently waiting the prospect of returning to the theatre to revisit the characters of Angels, and continue on from THAT cliff hanger ending of Part One. Part Two represents a rare chance in the theatre, where sequels are few and far between, to deepen my experience of these characters and their world. Kushner is at pains to point out that Part One and Two are “very different plays”. And they are. Where Part One was more overtly focussed on the body of the nation, Act Two is focussed on the body of humanity. Beliefs and certainties are painfully ripped apart, and the characters need to make themselves anew.
It’s possibly a funnier play too. Bosher gets his statement early in this one as well in a hilarious moment involving Bruce’s blind Bolshevik and a mobility scooter (good symbology there!). It’s a nod to the farce of life, and that ever slippery line between the comic and tragic. Kushner has a love of bathos (the angel’s greatest power is giving orgasms), and for all his wordy socialising, an aversion to pretence. Bosher too treats the play with respect, but not reverence, and we move between belly laughs and dramatic intakes of breath (with some truly terrifying moments from Matt Minto and Stephen Lovatt too good to spoil) in a way that always feels earned. Bosher and Mia Blake have unholy fun sending up the grand gestures of an angel that has vision, but lacks imagination.
The idea that when Angels in America first played in New Zealand (and indeed when it first debuted) it was sans Part Two is incredible to me. Part Two completes Part One by complicating it.
So what’s changed? Rachael Walker’s impenetrable wall over the stage remains broken by the angel’s visitation, but all nominal prophet Walter Prior has to show for it is a wet dream gone wrong. Prior first retreats into himself, a dark cloak and glasses his shield against a world who doesn’t understand his unwanted calling, nor his battle with disease. In flashback we learn the Angel’s message: God has left heaven, the angels want humanity to stop moving forward, to cease change, to remain in “STASIS!”. So, change then: Prior finds resilience and feverish purpose, journeying into the heavens themselves to demand he is not ready to let it all go in a tremendous, transcendent and triumphant performance from Gareth Reeves.
Meanwhile Prior’s former love Louis (Dan Musgrove) is going forward with Joe Pitt (Matt Minto). An early scene situates them in animalistic and exploratory lust, smelling and tasting their opposite: “Mmm. Iron. Clay”. Minto’s transformation as Pitt is most noticeable as he giddily unloads what he thinks he’s been supressing for all his life. But will their mutual interest last? Harper Pitt (Chelsea Preston Crayford) continues to try make sense of her ruptured world, this time with a dose of reality.
We see physical deterioration in Lovatt’s Roy Cohn, and the difference is striking; that posturing, raving ego-fiend of Part One is bedridden and struggling to function. He’s struggling too with the boundaries of his humanity, his mortality at odds with his world view. Lovatt’s work here is spine-tingling: the prospect of death makes Cohn menacingly unpredictable; he’s ghastly, and also pitiable, ridiculous. Was that sympathy I felt for one of the most hated men in American history?
In many ways, it is Jarod Rawiri’s Belize that part two belongs to. On the periphery last time, Belize now appears in scene after scene. He’s like an audience totem, observing the comings and goings with sometimes as much incredulity as us (notably pointing out to Prior the smell of a motif of God abandoning the world, just as Louis abandoned Prior). Rawiri’s Belize gets by with an attitude of hopeful cynicism. Rubbing the good nature of Belize up against his charge Cohn creates some of the most remarkable drama in the play. Bruce’s Hannah Pitt is another character on the edges that grows into Part Two, plunged into a big city and social experiences beyond her narrow Salt Lake City blinkers, she thrives and transforms. If we accept change as a given, the next question is how you survive and get through life. The characters provide their own answers, from Cohn’s self-interest, Louis’s anxious theorising, and Hannah’s practical adaptability.
Bosher is less restrained with set pieces this time, many scenes constituting large set objects to be bought on and off, with a greater number of stage crew making their appearance in scene transitions (less an actor driven event, more a crew!). There’s some terrific imagery – Lovatt amongst a forest of IV bags, Sean Lynch’s light catching their reflection in a golden glow – but it comes at the expense of pace. An AV rainstorm is less evocative than the remarkable snowfall. Lynch keeps the stage in perpetual haze, the light work eerily beautiful.
In keeping with the thematic spirit, there’s one another change to consider. The change in me. I felt exhausted after watching Part Two, like my emotional world and had been laid bare. I am in awe of the actors, who were running their own marathon, presenting both parts back to back. Athletes at the top of the game, any exhaustion was unperceivable, executing these roles with breath-taking clarity and drive.
After 8 hours of Angels in America, the final epilogue is revelatory. Bosher stages it in a way to throw the experience back out to us. Can we change? In time? It’s both a release, and a challenge. I feel filled with possibility, even spiritual.
And with that, Bosher signs off from Silo, leaving his company to seek its own transformation.
My empirical recommendation: See Angels in America. See all of it. Even go to a weekend marathon. Tangle with the knot of ideas. Marvel at its ambition. Be enraptured by the strength of the performances. Be carried to the heavens. It might just change you.
Angels in America Part One & Part Two is presented by Silo and plays at Q until 13 April. Details see Silo.