Sex, Power, Death: buzzwords every tabloid editor dreams of. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, directed by Jack Sain and staged at the Oxford Playhouse, has the lot, and a lot more to boot. Set in New York in 1985 as the AIDS pandemic sweeps across America, devastating the homosexual community in particular, this 3-hour epic brings together a disparate group of individuals from across society. Tracing the stories of Prior Walter (played by Ed Barr-Sim) and Louis Ironson (Arty Froushan), a couple reeling from the blow of Prior’s AIDS diagnosis, the narrative becomes interwoven with that of closeted Mormon attorney Joe Pitt (Dugie Young), his valium-popping wife Harper (Amelia Sparling) and his ultra-conservative boss Roy Cohn (Barney White), all the while observed by an overarching, angelic presence.
Yet this play promises to be a lot more than any basic plot summary can do justice to. This is a world where the physical and metaphysical are bound in the space of a breath; a world both grand and intimate which, from what I’ve been told, the set will beautifully enact. The Angels team say that the set expresses the “madness and cultural explosion of the 80s” while remaining engaged with the audience and actors (the cast are involved in all physical transitions); it sounds something to behold.
Furthermore, the play is markedly Brechtian at moments, announcing to the audience to remember that this is a representational art form built on the acceptance of artifice. Accordingly you can expect no black-outs at all between scene changes and a blending of gritty realism and fantastical flights.
From the few scenes I witnessed, the acting promises not to disappoint either. You can be certain of strong performances all round, with Jack Sain’s idiosyncratic and totally engaging directorial style tightening and tweaking the already assured cast. He calls his manner “physical first”, and even had one of the cast performing press-ups before his scene to engrain a sense of adrenaline into the performance. “He’s obsessive to the point of perfection” qualifies Jessica Campbell, the associate artist. And it seems to work: standout performances were given by Ed Barr-Sim, who managed to portray his character as both whimsically detached and nervously vulnerable and fragile. Meanwhile Barney White was the consummate voice of understated, simmering menace masked at first by joviality until the façade is devastatingly dropped.
My only fleeting concern would be that at 3 hours long it may be difficult to maintain the intensity of the performances, and in a couple of the scenes the energy level did noticeably drop. However this was addressed head on (see press-ups or the exercise of biting one’s own shoe…) and I’m sure the remaining rehearsals will rectify that for good. Why stage this play above any other I asked? Responses included “It’s radical in the Oxford setting,” and “it’s a linguistically amazing piece”: all reasons to see it, but I think the most brazenly honest response that “it’s a fucking good play” feels like a good note to end on. I’m sure it’ll be done justice.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs at The Oxford Playhouse from 23rd – 26th January, Wednesday – Saturday of 2nd Week.
Tickets available from £10.50.
PHOTOS/ Jack Sain