The Pulitzer-and-Tony-Awards-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a two-part play written by Tony Kushner, featuring ‘Millennium Approaches’ (which was first performed in 1991) and ‘Perestroika’ (first performed in 1993). The play centres around the AIDS crisis and homosexuality in Reagan’s administrative America, primarily focusing on a small group of differentiating characters grappling with their own self-identity and relationships.
During early November, ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’ was presented by Happier Years Productions at the Oxford Playhouse. Yet this production advanced the typical ‘student company’ play. The director Andrew Raynes described how, when Kushner released the play during 1991, a new millennium was to be ‘looked forward to’; however, 32 years later, ‘the millennium has passed’ and many issues remain unchanged: with conservatism ‘still on the rise’, questions of religion’s place ‘in a rapidly modernising world’ and how the COVID pandemic exposed many similar issues of the AIDS crisis, with ‘the most underprivileged and vulnerable members of society’ facing the biggest impact.
At 3-hours long, Tony Kushner’s play is a gargantuan task for everyone involved in the cast and crew, with some heavily uneasy scenes between characters and difficult choices with set design, lighting, and staging; however, Happier Years Production rose readily to this task. Although some characters’ New York accents were a little jarring at first, this slowly faded with the emotionally intense acting and cast chemistries.
The production started suddenly with a monologue by Maya Robinson’s character Rabbi Isodar Chemelwitz, introducing themes of religion, grief and the isolation of the human experience, which crop up constantly throughout the play. Straight after, we are introduced to Immanuel Smith’s cutthroat Roy M. Cohn and Aravind Ravi’s timid yet righteous Joe Pitt. Kushner’s Roy M. Cohn is based on the very real American lawyer and prosecutor under the same name. On the AIDS Memorial Quilt, he is described as ‘Roy Cohn. Bully. Coward. Victim.’, which Smith embodies wholeheartedly, ensuing fits of rage and pain under a flawlessly stereotypical New York accent. There is a scene in which he writhes in pain after constantly dismissing his AIDS diagnosis and converses with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (again, played fantastically by Maya Robinson), which almost tips into the overdramatic, but Smith’s performance brings the scene back, toeing the line between melodrama and realism. Joe Pitt is characterised as a chief clerk and closeted Mormon man in a straight marriage who emotionally grows across the performances. Ravi builds this through tone all throughout Angels in America, starting as a timid, God-fearing man who gradually becomes more aggravated and emotionally distressed. A scene that made me tear-up was when Joe declares to his wife that he prays for God to crush him and start over again. Ravi asserted these words so sincerely, it was felt all through the theatre.
Grace Gordon’s portrayal of Harper Pitt was a highlight to the show. The character is a depressed, locked-away, sexually repressed, Valium addicted, constantly hallucinating Mormon, who is the wife of Joe Pitt. Gordon entered this role with a seamless, unexaggerated American accent and managed to make the whole theatre laugh during her character’s surreal hallucinations, never once making them seem overly dramatic and pushed, which is very easily done with such an eccentric role. A favourite scene of mine was between Harper and Daniel McNamee’s Prior Walter, in which they visit each other in unconscious realms (Harper’s hallucination and Prior’s dream), both actors excellently play the roles of stereotypical characters (sometimes at a fault in Kushner’s writing) meeting people outside their cultural circles. The scene is both hilarious and heart-breaking, with both characters understanding the pain each other feels on a deeper level than just a stranger’s interaction.
Another high point to the production was the chemistry between Daniel McNamee’s Prior and Will Shackleton’s Louis Ironson. Although it did take a moment to settle into their onstage relationship, once the audience understood each character, every scene was always tinged with heartbreak. McNamee again managed to perfectly toe the line between over-the-top and the best of camp, with Prior being a flamboyant gay man who was recently diagnosed with Kaposi sarcoma. McNamee’s portrayal of Prior is both fabulously hilarious and heart-breaking at times, with the character grappling with his recent diagnosis, relationship and visions. The audience both howled with laughter and were deafeningly silent during many of his scenes. Shackleton’s Louis presented a different side to their relationship, after discovering his partner’s illness, he constantly wrestles with this information, fleeing from the warzone to find solace elsewhere. In a scene where Prior hallucinates two past Prior Walter’s in his lineage, a spectral Louis appears, urging him to dance with him. At first, the dancing felt a little off, but whilst quickly twirling around the stage, spectral Louis vanishes to the audience behind a stage-prop, revealing Prior dancing alone with Louis’ clothes. I highly commend the director and choreographer for this, as it was so quick and seamless it created a visceral atmosphere.
Essence Lotus’ Belize really tied the whole production together, bringing both humour and a sense of reality to the play. Without them, many scenes could have easily fell into the superficial and overly dramatic. Unlike any other production I’ve seen of Angels in America, when creating the voice of Prior’s visions, the production decided to use a loud concoction of different voices blaring through the speakers, and this really worked! It managed to both keep the play alive, but was also reminiscent of a biblically accurate angel, making Prior’s visions seem all the more emphasised and intense. However, the choice of music was sometimes a bit stretched and didn’t always match the scenes, but the triangle was great. The set design was also a little confusing, but after learning that it’s a subtle homage to the director Derek Jarman, it brought in themes of British queerness to a very American play.
Happier Years’ production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches managed to encapsulate the original themes of Tony Kushner’s 1991 play (such as loneliness, dealing with trauma in a relationship, and religion and politics in the every-day person’s life) through the lens of 2023 British society, whilst still heavily paying homage to the original. This production is a mammoth of a play and to interpret it so incredibly is an absolute feat. Audiences should definitely keep a look out for future Happier Years Productions’ events.