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Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA, National Theatre

Tony Kushner's landmark two-part play begins at a funeral, with a rabbi solemnly naming a woman's surviving relatives; partway through the interminable list of grandchildren, he stops and sighs. It's a witty opener for a piece that's epic in every conceivable sense of the word, taking almost eight hours to tackle not just state of the nation, but state of humanity and the divine. Though there's the odd lull, particularly in Kushner's baggier, wilder second part, Marianne Elliott's revival - 25 years after the influential National Theatre production ­- is a monumental achievement.

We're in New York, 1985, and in the grip of Reagan-era AIDS panic. Louis abandons his infected lover Prior, while (real) savage Republican lawyer Roy Cohn threatens a doctor into using the euphemism "liver cancer" on his chart - such is the fear and stigma associated with diagnosis.

Meanwhile, closeted Mormon Joe, Roy's protégé, wrestles with his sexuality, and wife Harper escapes reality through valium-induced hallucinations. There she meets Prior, the latter drawn into another realm by ghostly visitations and an angel on a mission.

Elliott authoritatively corrals these eddying plots, while creating space for both Kushner's weird and wonderful flights of imagination (the formal daring still impresses), and the moving, intimate interactions. Louis is accused of caring more about ideas than people, and the same might occasionally be said of Kushner, but not on Elliott's watch: she keeps the didacticism to a minimum, ensuring politics serves the drama, rather than the reverse.

Ian MacNeil's design plays a key role, with three revolves ensuring swift scene transitions and emphasising the interconnectedness of these lives. It beautifully realises a major theme for Kushner, who realigns the initially divergent relationships to create a religious, sexual and racial melting pot.

The supernatural elements are crisply delivered through a combination of musical stings (Adrian Sutton), expressionistic neon lights (Paule Constable), articulate puppetry (Finna Caldwell) and vivid movement (Robby Graham). It's a true company effort - as it is on the acting side, too, with Elliott's blockbuster cast delivering as an impressive whole.

Andrew Garfield is revelatory as the heroic Prior: droll, effete and fabulous, particularly when rocking a beaded gown, but utterly shattering as illness gradually strips away every part of his self-definition. Garfield ensures he never slips into martyrdom, balancing an intense, almost childlike vulnerability in the face of mortality with sharp, sardonic observation and a keenly relatable journey towards courage and understanding.

He's effectively paralleled by Denise Gough's Harper, who chafes against the bonds of victimhood; even when loopy on pills, rage powers her, and she takes gleeful delight in subverting an imaginative visit to Antarctica. Harper and Prior cross paths in two standout scenes: wryly accepting the strangeness of their shared unconscious while offering one another valuable truths; and envisaging their former partners in the marvellously creepy diorama at a Mormon visitors' centre - a great sight gag, and an oddly touching moment.

James McArdle gives a superb performance as the insufferably grandstanding and self-pitying Jewish Louis, who wonders if you can love someone and still fail them. Joe - a believably anguished Russell Tovey - fears failure on a spiritual level, as his sexuality tears him away from Mormon strictures, and their tentative bond is thoughtfully drawn: the tormented left-winger, who sees the world fall short of perfection, and the naïve Reagan idealist finding a murky but liberating middle ground.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is wonderful as Belize, the African-American drag queen/nurse and only well-adjusted person on stage; his exasperated "Uhuh" in the face of this nonsense speaks volumes. So, too, is Amanda Lawrence as an eccentric Angel - almost steampunk in Nicky Gillibrand's great costuming, and as much beleaguered bureaucrat as divine force.

Nathan Lane is titanic as the devilish Cohn. Introduced juggling phone calls ("Who. The fuck. Are you?" he snarls at one unfortunate), he's at the height of his powers. AIDS infuriates him not just because of its likely fatality, but because homosexuals have no clout. He's seductive - "Do you want to be pure or do you want to be effective?" - his father/son bond with Joe almost touching, and then his immoral viciousness sickens.

Lane's sparring with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown, excellent in multiple roles), who he placed in the electric chair, is nastily funny, but his actual passing has tremendous poignancy, with Rosenberg leading a recitation of the Kaddish.

If the play is ambivalent, at best, about organised religion, Kushner makes an ardent case for individuals' ability to find compassion and forgiveness in the toughest of circumstances. Justice - whether legal, natural or godly - is hotly debated, but forgiveness is "where love and justice finally meet", and necessary to end the paralysis of stasis. The characters' final release into real hope for change is incredibly cathartic.

Though valuable as an evocative history play, Kushner's work is still a powerful call to arms in 2017. Cohn was Trump's lawyer and his virulent strain of Republicanism, so wilfully blind to the needs of others, is evident in the Party that just stripped health care from millions of Americans. The challenges of progress, immigration and integration, prejudice, global warming, and religious and national identity are still urgent topics, here often brilliantly and waspishly articulated.

Thankfully, Kushner wryly leavens those debates. Elliott's production likewise maintains humour in the face of horror and honours his combination of visceral and intellectual, spiritual and sexual, political and personal. If the inflated running time doesn't always feel justified, it's perhaps fitting for our species' contradictory, chaotic, maddening and admirable fumbling - through the darkest shadows of humanity and back out into the light.

Angels in America at National Theatre until 19 August, with NT Live screenings on 20 and 27 July

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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