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The Age Review of Angels in America

★★★★
September 7 2017
Cameron Woodhead

Though Belvoir staged it in Sydney in 2013, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America hasn’t been performed in Melbourne for 23 years. Having watched this production spread its wings over two consecutive nights, I’m awed by how miraculous our independent theatre scene can be, that it possesses the depth of talent, resourcefulness and commitment required to wrestle this masterwork to life.

Set across the US during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Kushner’s sumptuous and impassioned saga soars high on the updraft between capital and small-r revelation, apocalypse and inspired insight. His symphonic work will long outlast the crisis that kindled it, because it embraces so many timeless themes, blending lyricism and politics, the intimate and the epic with all the whimsy, fury, intellect and compassion at the playwright’s command.

The cast shines in a brilliant rendition of Angels in America.  Photo: Sarah Walker

I assumed a play as hallucinatory, as ambitious and grand as this could only be done justice with the deep pockets of a major theatre company. Not so. The bare-stage opening does make you wonder, but as it proceeds the set, sound, lighting and costume design unveil a surprising degree of spectacle which, under Gary Abrahams’ direction, never compromises dramatic pace.

Yet it’s the superior acting that bears us aloft. A wonderful cast has been assembled, with some staggering performances.

Grant Cartwright plays Prior Walter, a young man dying of AIDS, abandoned by his lover and transfigured by sickness and horror into a seer and prophet. It’s a pitch-perfect portrayal fuelled by wit and charismatic gallows humour, by visceral distress but also the otherworldliness of intense suffering. Cartwright joins effortless naturalism and heightened physical presence into an intensely moving night journey that avoids falling off a high-wire into the pit of sentiment.

In roles played by Meryl Streep in the HBO mini-series, Helen Morse is peerless. She’s one of our finest stage actors and you just can’t look away. Bringing a rare combination of spikiness and grace to a Mormon mother who upends her life to seek out her gay son, she also plays that chord to riveting, though understated, effect as a spectral Ethel Rosenberg. And there are other, cross-gendered cameos – a rabbi, a doctor, an incarnation of communism – that show off her versatility.

As Belize, the black drag queen and nurse who sits at the empathic core of the piece, Dushan Philips seems to ride a magic carpet of sensitivity and quizzical camp, and sets the stage afire in an angry monologue.

Other characters don’t fail to impress. Simon Corfield doesn’t miss a beat as Prior’s guilt-ridden Jewish boyfriend, in a granular portrayal of a flawed progressive who often misses the forest for the trees.

Caleb Alloway as a conservative Mormon in the closet may be a bit light-on to wear the full-plate armour of masculinity the character seems to need, but otherwise holds his own. As his jilted, pill-popping wife, Emily Goddard melds dreamy clowning and the unspeakable pain behind it.

Margaret Mills is suitably fierce and strange as the angel, but it’s her performance as a psychotic homeless woman that intoxicates, achieving a Biblical force of accusation against a society that has failed her.

The main reservation, performance-wise, is Brian Lipson as Roy Cohn. Cohn is a direct link to today’s world. The amoral lawyer assisted McCarthyite persecutions in the 1950s and was a master manipulator of bad publicity. He was also the Sith Lord of shamelessness who gave us Darth Trump. Lipson can’t be faulted on his own terms, yet he’s a skilled, if mannered, actor who doesn’t possess the kind of negative charisma that might lend a more tragic ambit to the part.

Even so, this is a brilliant theatrical event. It will leave you reeling, transported, and thoroughly moved.

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