Obtuse Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part Two: Perestroika
(National Theatre, live and live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

Inevitably this will include spoilers for Part One: Millennium Approaches — which I was lucky enough to see live and then as a live relay. Equally, it is impossible to talk about this play without discussing the end. I will single out that part of my discussion as I reach it.
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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.

(I rewatched the play as a live relay.)

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.