Angels In America (Cameron Lukey, Dirty Pretty Theatre)

9 September 2017 | 3:58 pm | Maxim Boon

"A thrilling, thoroughly accomplished and deeply moving piece of theatre."

Speaking with a friend earlier this week, I shared my excitement about attending the opening of a new production of Angels In America, the first in Melbourne for nearly two and half decades. "That's the really long gay play about AIDS, right?" they responded. Inherently, perhaps. But Tony Kushner's "gay fantasia" is neither as pigeon-holed or as bleak as that description implies.

I'll concede, given this play's contentious themes and its eight-hour running time (spread over two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), a person might assume such a marathon performance would leave its audience punch-drunk. In fact, this is a work so richly layered, so meticulously drawn, so profoundly, unexpectedly consoling, that it has both head and heart alert with self-realisations. Some cathartic, others more challenging.

In mid-1980s New York, we meet Prior Walter (Grant Cartwright), a bright and proudly gay young man, and his boyfriend Louis (Simon Corfield), as they leave the funeral of an elderly relative. When the old die, it's easily sentimentalised; when death stalks those in their prime, awkward comedy seems the more common knee-jerk. Prior has KS lesions on his body, the first sign of AIDS. "I am a lesionnaire," he quips; Louis breaks down in terrified sobs. Prior's end will not be quiet or dignified. He will not pass peacefully in his sleep after a long, fulfilled life. Instead, his body will be slowly consumed by an onslaught of microbes and fungi. Before the end, there will be pain, and stench, and bodily fluids. And so much fear. But even though these horrors await Prior, this ordeal is more than Louis is prepared to endure. He abandons the man he claims to love, only to have his cowardice trap him in an inescapable prison of self-loathing.

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Joe Pitt (Caleb Alloway) is also tortured by mental demons, but his come from a life-long denial of his homosexuality. A devout Mormon, he has taken a wife - the emotionally unstable, Valium addicted Harper (Emily Goddard) - in an attempt to silence the voice of his true desires. He believes not acting on his urges will absolve him of his sin, and yet he is unable to redirect his passions towards his intimacy-starved wife. When he plucks up the courage to come out to his mother, she dismisses it as a "ridiculous" response to his father's rejection. Joe is a man ruled by what he believes is an implacable moral code, and yet he cannot live up to his own sky-high standards of Christian purity, or reach for compassion outside of the laws of man or God.

Such inconvenient attacks of conscience do not bother Roy Cohn, vividly captured by the astonishing Brian Lipson. A character lifted from reality, this abrasive, grotesquely hypocritical lawyer is power-hungry, ruthless, and almost absurdly megalomaniacal; it comes as little surprise that he was once a young Donald Trump's financial adviser. Cohn marvels at his own tyrannical "clout", but his boorish grandstanding can do little to halt the creeping invasion of HIV. Cohn remains unbowed and unbroken by his diagnosis: "I am a heterosexual who fucks men," he bellows at his doctor. He will explain away his declining health with a far more respectable condition - liver cancer - lest his legend and legacy be irreparably tarnished.

The story of these people could very easily collapse under the weight of its own misery, and heaven knows (pun intended), there is a great deal of suffering in this pair of plays. And yet, thanks to an aptly miraculous sleight of hand, Kushner lifts these tormented souls aloft, with thrilling originality, lyricism and fierce, unrestrained intelligence. He refuses to allow this chapter of gay history to be reduced to a pitiful tragedy. Instead, he offers a story that is constantly dynamic and surprising, alive with frissons of humour, rage, and gloriously verbose wit.

Neither is this a narrative that only gay audiences can connect with. When abandoned AIDS patient Prior is revealed as a seer of the divine, the chosen prophet of angels, this epic saga begins to uncouple the abstract from the physical, blurring the boundaries of perception and fantasy. It counterpoints the paradox of our intangible essence with the rank, indigent frailties of our bodies, as if to question where the true seat of consciousness really is: in the intellectual, the spiritual, or the corporeal? The answer is far from clear. Joe's pill popping wife Harper can retreat into drug addled hallucinations that transport her away from her broken marriage. At the same time, the divine intent of Prior's angel is heralded by erections and ejaculate, not spiritual rapture. As he lays dying, Roy is tormented by a ghost from his past. But does Prior's encounter with the metaphysical give credence to this supernatural visit, or are Roy's visions merely the product of his crumbling sanity? Mind and body are inextricably bound, and yet their fates, transcending social status, sexuality or gender, seem identically opposite.

But for all this play's invention and brilliance, for all the rich opportunities it offers its actors, it is by no means a fool proof text. In fact, Kushner imposes extraordinary demands on virtually every level. Not only is the duration of Angels of herculean proportions, its poetic vernacular requires nothing less than absolute fidelity. Only actors at the very height of their powers could hope to do it justice. Kushner's ambition is dazzling, but conjuring the many worlds of this play - places of polarised wealth and divine demolitions; hospitals and Mormon visitor centres; public fountains and angelic cities - implies a scale of stage and budget that should surely be beyond the grasp of independent theatre.

By a coincidence, there's a case in point in another new production of Angels In America, recently staged by London's National Theatre and currently showing in cinemas across Australia. With an impressive A-list cast, including Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, the NT's pointedly '80s, neon-lit staging is as technically virtuosic as live theatre could ever hope to be. However, as Dirty Pretty Theatre has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, not only can Angels In America soar in a more intimate space, it can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with more lavish productions and deliver an experience every bit as remarkable.

Director Gary Abrahams and producer Cameron Lukey have assembled a creative team of truly top-notch calibre, who manage to deliver grandeur and dramatic clarity from seemingly slight resources. But it's the quality of the cast that really makes this production a wonder. Abrahams has extracted performances from his actors that push them to their limits, but each and every one of them meets this challenge head on, to spectacular effect. Kushner's handling of language is dense and even bombastic, so it would be easy for it to sound unwieldy. Yet there's barely a line from any on stage that isn't perfectly calibrated to make the most of Kushner's poetry while still communicating authentically. This ensemble is unanimously stellar, but Helen Morse deserves particular credit for the sheer versatility she displays, flitting between a fretful Mormon mother, sardonic ghost, ageing rabbi and elderly Bolshevik with infallible ease. Equally jaw-dropping is Brian Lipson as the contemptible Roy Cohn, turning the dial up to wincing levels of lurid to wring every ounce of monstrous flamboyance from this character. As Belize, the ex-drag queen nurse and only truly objective voice in the play, Dushan Philips achieves the ideal equilibrium between campy sass and unshakable strength of purpose.

This production of Angels In America is a thrilling, thoroughly accomplished and deeply moving piece of theatre, but it also feels important for other reasons. Another remarkable feat of Kushner's diptych is how perennially relevant it has remained, even decades after its 1991 premiere. It would be quite impossible to watch Angels In America without a sense of destiny. AIDS emerged in Reagan's America, and as that misunderstood "gay plague" tore into the LGBTQ community and beyond, an unmoved White House palmed off concerns about the escalating crisis with a disturbingly flippant lack of interest. Thirty years later, as Australian politicians are similarly cavalier with the human rights of gay men and women, as Trump's White House echoes that Reaganite apathy in its stance on trans recruits in the military, the political environment of Angels seems as prescient of things to come as it is a document of the past. At the end of the play, we're offered a message of hope: "We shall no longer die secret deaths," Prior pledges. It's a line that now also seems to resonate on a political level. Our ambitions for equality must be as unambiguous as Prior's declaration, because the sincerity of our emotions and those enigmatic phantasms, love and desire, are no less real than the microscopic realm of viruses or the weaknesses of our vulnerable biology.

Dirty Pretty Theatre presents Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes till 24 Sep at Fortyfivedownstairs