Approaching Millennium

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

When I was unclear that I would get to see
Angels in America
live, I bought a ticket for a live relay of Part One. Part Two I was uncertain about, given it clashes with the Clarke Award — for that matter I was going to have to give up the Thursday night of the Kent Beer Festival to see Part One. But even when I did get to see Part One and Two, I decided to rewatch.

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Acute Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, directed by Marriane Elliott)

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Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Shortly into this seven and a half hour play — twenty minutes? half an hour? — I mused on Walter Benjamin, a thinker I do not know as much about as I should and his musings on the Paul Klee picture and history.

(When I was researching a chapter on John Wyndham, “Random Quest” and the film Quest for Love, I needed to know about Goethe and Elective Affinities and Paul de Man had written an essay on Benjamin’s essay on someone else’s reading of the novel, but that was too far down the rabbit hole.)

Might this unpack a way of unthinking about Tony Kushner extraordinary play? Ah, he says, having googled, Kushner already knows about the angel of history.

It is a document of a different time — always already an history play. It is set in the plague years, the early years of the HIV crisis, when AZT trials were making headway and it might just have been possible to think of living with AIDS rather than a death sentence. Reagan had been reelected (so had Thatcher) and it was necessary to overcome deep, visceral prejudice in order to gain funding and to educate.

In another part of the forest there was The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s (autobiographical) account of the gay communities coming together to organise itself and campaign over HIV awareness (and also As Is). Angels in America chooses a more fantastical route, like Unicorn Mountain, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”, Tim and Pete and ”Was…”, leading up to the climactic (and bordering on ridiculous) arrival of an angel at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. In addition to the fantasy, Kushner is evidently aiming for a state of the nation play, via George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Miller.

I can’t imagine what it was like to see the original production, a year or so before the staging of the second half, “Perestroika”. A two hour wait was tough enough. And I have to say, it has aged better than I would have expected. Perhaps President Trump takes us back to a time of Reagan and the sense of a world on the brink of an abyss. I’m not convinced gay marriage was on the agenda in 1986, but clearly same-sex couples were living together even if they would have had few legal rights. A couple of names passed me by — big at the time but lost to history. And as I will note in the next paragraphs, Trump is a partial consequence of one of the characters of the play.

In a sense, the first play is about two couples and that character. WASPy Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), ex-drag queen, reveals to his Jewish boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle) that he has AIDS; Louis can’t handle this and thinks about leaving Prior. He is discovered crying in a bathroom by Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey), who has been lying to his wife Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) about his true sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, has been offered a promotion by his boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane).

Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the McCarthy-Army hearings, he had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason and had been responsible with McCarthy for getting many gay people fired from government employment. In the 1970s, he was the Trump family lawyer, a formidable and aggressive litigator, who defended by going in the attack (sound familiar?). This character — along with the angel — is what has stayed with me most from the HBO adaptation is Al Pacino chewing the scenery. Lane is dialled back, thankfully, with a bit more of a nuanced performance (but it could hardly be less). He is sweary sweary and the audience find this funny. He is the devil offering Joe a pact, playing semantics, offering to be a father to the Mormon, in an almost invisible seduction. He is Not Gay — gays are losers, gays have no power, he has power, he simply has sex with men. He does not have AIDS — he has liver cancer.

The theme of fathers and sons runs through the first play; perhaps just sons as none of the characters are fathers. And there is also a mother and son, as we meet Joe’s mother towards the end, setting up part two. There is the patriarchy at work, man handing on advice, knowledge, power and wealth to the next generation, except it may all end here, in the coming apocalypse.

We also have the sense of betrayal — lovers of lovers, husbands of wives, Cohn surely of Joe. So many characters want to get out and leave — complaining that they have been out in an impossible situation, not of their making. This sense of inevitability, of predestination, of the elect and the damned connects with an ongoing discussion of guilt. Louis, in particular, has long monologues (even as part of dialogue) about Judaism and guilt, as well as the after life. The scene is set for this by the opening monologue — a funeral oration by a rabbi (played by Susan Brown, who later plays a male doctor and the Mormon mother), which also points to immigration, migration and progress, a theme which develops through the second play.

To take the play at its word as a “Gay fantasia on national themes”, it seems to be a very middle class set of characters — with doctors and lawyers. There is a single African American actor, Nathan Stewart-Jones, who plays an hallucinated travel agent and then Belize, a nurse. In the second play he is given a lot more ideological weight, but not so much here. The female roles are a little thin — with Gough’s Harper playing a hysterical, Valium popping wife who has been driven there by Joe, first leaving her alone as he works and then leaving her alone as he “goes for long walks”. (The gay demi-monde is a little cringe worthy in its representation.) As part of her hallucinations, she sees Prior, and engages in conversations with him, and this seems to be real if impossible. In the third act she appears to go Antarctica, in search of friends, a moment which perhaps plays with Robert Walton in Frankenstein.

Much of the staging involves three revolves (sorry — an awful sentence) that keep shifting locations. The staging is meant to be abstract, not realistic, but sometimes this device gets in the way. And when it all slides back, revealing the whole stage for a snow storm, the release from claustrophobia is striking.

And then, the angel.

The first manifestation, if I recall correctly, is a single feather, and then there is a burst of flames. This risked being comic rather than revelatory. But the apparition is worth waiting for — Amanda Lawrence as a kind of Annie Lennox with half a dozen assistants, actually rather sinister not utopian in tone. It seems a very deus ex machina ending, a brave perhaps fool hardy moment.

And of course, as you recall from his roles other than Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield can act — coy, camp, heart broken, tough, resigned, angry, and scared out of his wits at what May of course be a night hallucination, or may indeed be an angel in New York.

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Waiting for Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (directed by David Leveaux, Old Vic, cinema relay)

This is a haunted play and I suspect only partly deliberately. I saw the Mark Arden-Stephen Frost-Lionel Blair version at Nottingham Playhouse thirty years ago, which was I now realise a twentieth anniversary of its profession debut at the Old Vic in 1967 after a 1966 Edinburgh Fringe run. It is a play that weaves in and out of Hamlet in an ingenious way — the backstage to the main plot as it were. And every time I see Hamlet, I feel that it is a play full of quotations… even leaving aside any debt to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and an ur-Hamlet.

But it is also Samuel Beckett — the two tramps who are passing time, Waiting for Godot, visited by Lucky and Pozzo, philosophising. And playing games. In Beckett’s play there is a reaching for a deeper meaning, at least on the part of the audience, but without the sense of quite what that is. Not only that, but once we see the barrels on board ship, I am transported back to Happy Days (1961), with characters in barrels.

It might be a young man’s play, with effortless riffing on probability (a coin landing heads ninety times), chaos theory (a hint at the butterfly effect) and other scientific ideas, but there’s also thinking about death, what real death is, whether it can be represented rather than known, the nature of memory. Seeing it again, possibly fifteen years after I saw Stoppard’s intriguing film version with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, twenty years or more after having last read it, I am struck by the cleverness of the structure, the thematic unities between the first and second half (although I think this production moves the interval — certainly Stoppard has done rewrites). The coin toss game leads to the which-hand-is-it-in giving Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) the chance to give back some of the money he won from Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) at the start of the play. And the looking in barrels for people is somewhere between find the lady and Schrödinger’s cat.

So here we have Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz — the box office gold, although it may be depressing that Stoppard needs a star as draw. Radcliffe wants to show his acting chops — even as he disguises them under an actorly beard. He’s done Equus, another classic, another play where it is hard to place the author’s own point of view. It would be easy to be uncharitable, and here I certainly had the sense he was the weak link. Arden and Frost were a double act, I could almost imagine Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis playing the roles (there’s even a physical resemblance) and I think there’s an instinctive camaraderie that is needed to get the timing pitch perfect. Perhaps it was the distraction of the cameras, but in the first act at least he seemed not quite on cue. It doesn’t help that he is in the dimmer role — his vacant, smiling, rabbit in the headlights seemed a little one note. In the second act he hit his stride — there is more action to set against, and there was a louder audience reaction, even an awww.

His costar, Josh McGuire, is undoubtedly stronger, but table tennis needs two great players. I’ve looked him up, and I don’t remember him from the things he’s in that I have seen. He’s more obvious comic, also a little camp, and at times seems to be acting as the director (of the play of “life”?) in a way I don’t recall from earlier viewings.

In the short film tour of the Old Vic that preceded the play, he is the lead compared to Radcliffe, whom both Chris and I noted was never looking at the camera. Is this the celeb who has learned not to make eye contact? Real shyness as himself? Would the play work if the casting were to be reversed? Radcliffe, the star, as Rosencrantz is the supporting part to a minor role.

I suspect there was a severe rake to the stage, because the other actors towered over them at times. Chris was reminded of The Lord of the Rings and there was a visual affinity to Frodo and Sam — with Radcliffe as Sam. That leaves the idea of Ian McKellen as the Player, here played by David Haig.

Haig is best known as sitcom actor and the Richard Curtis “comedies”, but I have seen him in Chichester’s play version of Yes, Prime Minister as Jim Hacker against Henry Goodman’s Sir Humphrey, foregrounding his insecurities and pettiness against the oily superiority. There is little insecurity here, though, even as the Player craves the audience. He is the cockney actor manager, tough, full of the gift of the gab, and oddly sexually ambivalent — here I think Stoppard has added a few more sexual touches to a play first professionally performed in the year that homosexuality was partially decriminalised. Alfred (Matthew Durkan) as the boy act forced to cross dress rather steals his scenes.

The cast of the main play of Hamlet feel a little slight, and I was slightly confused by the choice of a black actor (Wil Johnson) as Claudius, uncle and now father to a very pale Hamlet (Luke Mullins). Colour blind casting? I guess he and Hamlet sr could be half brothers or… I don’t know, it seemed an odd distraction. Did Theo Ogundipe double as Horatio (son of the white Polonius) and Fortinbrass? Or am I foolish to look for realism in this play?

But, yes, the play took wing towards the end and the relationship between the leads finally fell into place. The creative director of the Old Vic tells he always chooses plays which are politically meaningful, and it is in that second act that we get the lines about not placing faith in England:

Rosencrantz: I don’t believe in it anyway.
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: England.
Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?

The words of the almost thirty-year-old Stoppard, né Tomáš Straussler, clearly in love with the language and clearly not afraid to take on the masters of the English theatre.

My Heart Belongs to Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes

Tom Stoppard, Travesties (Director: Patrick Marber, Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue)

As I’m sure I’ve written before, I fell out of love with theatre thanks to Nottingham Playhouse’s patronising use of social realist dramas. My few returns to theatre, aside from Hobson’s Choice and Glen Garry Glen Ross, seem to have been Shakespeare. But there have been the odd Stoppard — the original production of Arcadia (I also saw Hapgood) and the Chichester revival of The Real Inspector Hound. I’d read Travesties thirty years ago, but I’d never seen it until now.

It’s a play that sort of demonstrates what we “know” about Stoppard. He cares more about ideas than people. He’s not a radical playwright. He’s too clever for his own good.

Certainly I overheard conversations in the interval and after the curtain in which audience members declared they didn’t understand it. “Great acting, great production, but I don’t think I understand it.”

Stoppard’s jumping off point is the fact that Lenin, Joyce and Tzara were all in Zurich in 1917. He presents these through the memories of the British Consul… the assistant British Consul… an assistant British Consul… Henry Carr, from about fifty years later. Carr is an unreliable narrator, which gets around the dates not quite working, the minor anachronisms. Joyce, in the middle of writing Ulysses, invites Carr to play Algie in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which led to lawsuits being exchanged between the two of them. Lenin, meanwhile, is waiting for revolution in Russia and trying to work out how to get across Germany to Petrograd. And Tzara, having just “invented” Dadaism, has fallen in love with Carr’s sister.

Each of the three great men are given chances to make speeches about their ideas and argue with Carr — the role of art, the role of the artist, the place of the the revolutionary, whether man can live on bread alone when he cannot live on art. I guess the confusion comes in when you try to work out where Stoppard stands, as a playwright who seems to be more about ideas than social change. Given some of his plays and television work about Czechoslovakia and the Soviet bloc, and an interview with him some thirty years ago, you’d assume his sympathies are not with Lenin. But then Stoppard asserted that he had to play fair and give Lenin some decent lines. And his major opponent is Carr, who pretty well emerges as a jerk. For that matter, I recall seeing some left wing playwrights who are similarly dialogic.

There is the glorious level of intertextuality — The Importance of Being Ernest, of course, although I thought there were more quotations, a few sequences that are indebted to the catechism chapter of Ulysses (which I probably didn’t catch in the 1980s) — as well as playing with limericks and poems, translations, and so forth. The start of the second half has a very clever (and rude) joke with Joyce dictating the ending of Ulysses. There are cut ups of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and sequences which break into song and dance. Sometimes, I fear, I cringed a little, but there’s a Brechtian playfulness that recurs.

There are a couple of other texts that haunt it — there’s the Orson Welles cuckoo clock speech from The Third Man which you’d think would be alluded to in a conversation about war, peace and Switzerland and the dress and make-up of sister Gwendolyn and librarian Cecily seem to anticipate the play with twins in Hapgood.

It might be the strength of the acting, but you do care for the characters. Tom Hollander plays Carr as old man and young, and his comic timing and height feel spot on. His opening speech, more or less, is a three page soliloquy, which is hitting the ground running after some added silent business. The actor playing the butler, Bennett, almost steals his scenes, with some radical comments I think have been added to the script since 1974. Cecily (Clare Foster) and Gwendolyn (Amy Morgan) have a thankless first half, but come into focus in the second. The play isn’t just about the men — although only the men are famous. Cecily teeters on the edge of feminist or political killjoy — Carr declares her a pedant — but this allows her to name the play. The original exchange between the two women was in verse, but here it is played in song (with Joyce on mandolin).

Of course, it is hard to understand on some levels — the need of art to be political or not to be art is not resolved, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. Because it isn’t resolvable.

Let’s end with one odd twist: Freddie Fox, of the Fox dynasty, is Tzara — initially Romanian, but quickly English as he shades into an The Importance of Being Ernest character. In 1974 he was played by John Hurt. I’m not sure I can quite imagine that.

Silly Mid On

Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land (National Theatre Encore)

I suspect I’ve seen more films with Pinter scripts than plays — there was a baffling Dumb Waiter at school, a sweary Mountain Language on tv and probably a BBC Two The Birthday Party when they still did plays. I’ve probably seen more Beckett and certain more Ayckbourn and Stoppard. But then I fell out of love with theatre in my teens.

Beckett seems the key name to me — the imprisoning of a small number of characters within a small space (that’s a Buñuel film too), arguments and banter this side of violence, a sense of the bleak whilst still permitting laughs and above all a flavour of the Deep and Meaningful (if you could but work out what).

Pinter’s 1975 play has Hirst and Spooner as its Vladimir and Estragon, Briggs and Foster as its Pozzo and Lucky. The poet, critic and essayist Hirst has evidentially picked the failing poet Spooner up at a Hampstead pub, possibly Jack Straw’s Castle, and brought him home for a nightcap, and the two appear strangers. They drink vodka and whisky, until Hirst is on the edge of passing out. Spooner is joined by Foster, a thirty-something who appears to be Hirst’s secretary and may be a hoodlum, and then Briggs, housekeeper and possibly body guard. They are suspicious of the stranger, sceptical, and Spooner is kept over night.

In the Second Act, Spooner is forced to be someone else — sitting in for Hirst’s financial advisor, being mistaken (perhaps) for Hirst’s university friend, trying to become Hirst’s secretary. And all the while is the killing kindness of Briggs and Foster, threatening to become actual violence. The characters are trapped in a series of games of cat and mouse, with it being unclear who the mouse is. How far are the characters a projection of Hirst’s? How far is it a psychodrama of Spooner’s? The metacommentary of Spooner’s familiarity with being locked in a room over night or the menace of an unlocked room points to interrogations, either during the Second World War or the Cold War, and Hirst claims he was in intelligence. Foster notes that he was sent for — there are secret forces at work perhaps, but then Rosencrantz and Guildernstern were also sent for.

The names point to cricketers — George Hirst, RH “Reggie” Spooner, Frank Foster and Johnny Briggs — and Hirst thinks the last time he saw the man he takes Spooner for was at Lords, in the shadow of the Second World War in 1939. The no man’s land is both within Hirst and between enemies at war. The term, of course, is more generally applied to the First World War and if memory serves Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV” refers to

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park…

as an example of an earlier lost innocence.

Ian McKellen, who here plays Spooner, offers a naturalistic explanation gleaned from performing scenes with Patrick Stewart (Hirst) for the late Oliver Sacks. Hirst has some kind of dementia, he genuinely can’t remember who he is some of the time and is used to playing along to hide it. Maybe, I don’t know, there is so much left over.

There are the curious hints at homosexuality — Spooner spending time on Hampstead Heath, a cruising ground (although he insists he is not looking for sex, and claims wife, children and grandchildren at various points in the play), given extra echoes because this is McKellen directed by his ex-partner Sean Matthias. I don’t know if Jack Straw’s Castle was a gay pub, but it’s the name of a Thom Gunn collection published in 1976. Secret identities, secret lives. It’s hinted that Foster and Briggs are lovers — Foster is played by Damien Monolly as omnisexual, as much coming on to Spooner as threatening him and Briggs using sexual innuendo to put Spooner down.

The tone does veer alarmingly — the increasingly dark and menacing first half gives way to the comedy of mistaken identity in the second, before darkness, or peace, descend. I was impressed by all of the cast, although clearly the servant characters have less to do. Apparently there is a film version of the original Peter Hall production, where Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were in the central roles and (brilliantly) Terence Rigby (Big Al from Alan Plater’s Beiderbecke trilogy) was Briggs.

This production was first shown on Broadway, in a double bill with the McKellen/Stewart/Matthias Waiting for Godot, which I think I preferred, but I’m glad I talked myself into seeing it anyway.

The Stoppard Problem

To ask the hard question is simple:
Asked at a meeting
With the simple glance of acquaintance
To what these go
And how these do;
To ask the hard question is simple,
The simple act of the confused will.

The Hard Problem (2015; writer Tom Stoppard, director Nicholas Hytner, Dorfman Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, via cinema relay)

For weeks I thought that “the hard problem” was a quotation. But I’m pretty sure I was confusing it in my head with “the hard question”. The hard problem is the problem of consciousness — what is it, where does it comes from, can it be created?

Stoppard has always been a writer of ideas — the talk of chance and probability in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, all kinds of philosophy in Jumpers, the coincidence of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara in Zurich in 1915 in Travesties, quantum mechanics in Hapgood and chaos theory in Arcadia. The recurrent accusation — beyond being too clever for his own good — is that alongside the philosophising and the theatrical gymnastics, Stoppard forgets to have a heart. Well, The Real Thing should have put paid to that.

The Hard Problem is the first Stoppard play I’ve seen since Arcadia; wrong places, wrong times. It’s his first play in years and I don’t think, alas, it’s vintage.

Loughborough University student Hilary (Olivia Vinall) is seeking advice from her lecturer Spike (Damien Molony) as she is applying for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. He questions her notions of altruism and good and is on the egotism/selfish gene side of human behaviour, especially when she reveals she prays. She gets the job — over a better mathematician, Amal (Parth Thakerar), who goes on to work for the hedge fund run by Krohl (Anthony Calf) which funds the institute — and climbs the greasy pole of research with or without ethics.

In this play, Stoppard is like those fan wank writers who make you feel intelligent. You know, like that episode of Sherlock that invents an underground station so we can be smug about knowing about “The Great Rat of Sumatra” (some people just aren’t ready). The film that preceded the screening had Rufus Sewell telling us how he felt more intelligent when performing in Arcadia. Stoppard begins the play by having Spike explain the prisoner’s dilemma — to be fair, Hilary is bored with how pedestrian that is — and before you know it (well, half a dozen scenes later), Hilary is faced with a situation where she can protest her innocence or claim guilt. Just like a prisoner’s dilemma. Spike tells us that there is no such thing as coincidence — but Hilary runs into an old friend from school, runs into Amal’s girlfriend, runs into Spike in Venice.

Small world.

Still, we never note all those times that someone doesn’t ring us just as we’re thinking of them.

That reunion allows the revelation about Hilary’s past that might lead to a coincidence or not. There was an audible gasp in the audience when that finally panned out. Audiences can be slow.

The problem for me — beyond an age-old wishing for funnier comedies — is that the play was not really about consciousness in any interesting way. There’s a few speeches where we speculate whether human beings are more complicated thermostats…

It’s Daniel Dennett territory:

There is no magic moment in the transition from a simple thermostat to a system that really has an internal representation of the world around it. The thermostat has a minimally demanding representation of the world, fancier thermostats have more demanding representations of the world, fancier robots for helping around the house would have still more demanding representations of the world. Finally you reach us.

And we get a version of the Chinese Box problems, so Searle’s in the mix, too. And that thing about bats is a reference to Nagel.

But this is sleight of hand.

In Hapgood, Stoppard paired idea with theatrical metaphor by asking if a quantum physicist was a spy or a double agent — you could never tell until you looked. I had no sense that the problem of consciousness was being performed here. No moment when Hilary is deluded that she’s conscious, or can’t trust her sense data or is a thermostat.

Instead, the issue is altruism vs egotism — is the good deed still a good deed if it’s for personal gain? Why did that person bring Hilary a cup of coffee? How many times will Spike offer Hilary a lift home in hopes of sex before he gives up? The market that funds the institute is notoriously unpredictable even though the equations of chaos have had a go, and I’m not clear when the play is meant to be set so we don’t have the spectre of 2008 to negotiate. Krohl is ruthless and the game is rigged in his favour — but he also seems a reasonable father. Is his institute altruism or egotism?

But Stoppard has here not worked hard enough to dramatise the speeches, with many scenes as two handers, and doesn’t seem to have the social comedy skills of Ayckbourn anymore to make some of the human interactions painfully, squirmingly funny. The game seems rigged in favour of Hilary — for the female characters in general — and against Spike. Vinall may be the better actor than Molony perhaps, as he is called upon to be eye candy and has a bit of a wandering accent.

And yet — and this is difficult to give full weight to without straying into spoiler territory — a small gesture toward Hilary at the end of the play (which tips the scales to altruism) is genuinely moving. There is a time for altruism and a time for egotism, or they are the same thing, plus time, but I’m not convinced we get any closer to solving the hard problem that way.