Angels in America
The full title of Tony Kushner’s seven-hour, two-part epic play is Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. This year it celebrates its 25th anniversary, and a revival is being staged at the National Theatre in London, starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. The story takes place in mid-1980s America, while the country is in the grip of the AIDS crisis. It follows troubled New Yorkers as they struggle with life, love and death. When it was first staged in 1992, it had a profound and lasting effect on the way the public viewed homosexuality.
The first cases of AIDs in the United States began to appear in 1981. More than 700,000 people have died after developing the diesease since then, many of them gay or bisexual men. Angels in America is set in the midst of this crisis in the 1980s — a crisis that would shape the LGBT community forever.
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This is a heavy presence throughout the play — not least because the characters are visited by angels who have been abandoned by God. The main character, Prior Walter, is chosen to be a prophet by one of these angels. Meanwhile, Mormonism and Judaism shape the identities of several key characters.
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An angel visits the play’s protagonist, Prior, and tells him that God is angry at the constant motion of humans on Earth. The angel begs him to stop humanity’s progressing, a request that appals Prior. The play addresses several political and social changes, as well as more personal developments: relationships end, bodies weaken, friendships are formed. Is change good, bad, or simply inevitable?
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The play centres around two couples. There are Prior and Louis, gay men who are struggling with the AIDS crisis. Then there are Joe and Harper, a married Mormon couple. Throughout the play these characters break up, make up, and form new relationships with each other. Despite their difficulties, the love that people and communities have for each other is a constant, very human presence.
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The president does not appear in the play. But his friend, mentor and lawyer Roy Cohn is its most difficult character, seeming to embody corruption. In reality, the ruthless attorney was infamous for his amoral attitude to life; one of his first pieces of advice to Trump was to “tell them to go to hell”. In the play, he is old, dying of AIDS, and refusing to admit his sexual relations with men.
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