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No one could deny the scope and ambition of Tony Kushner’s ground-breaking two-part epic, which puts its finger on the racing pulse of 1980s America. When it first opened in the early 1990s, it seemed to gather up the spirit of that greedy decade and yet also to weave a dark, glittering response on behalf of those who did not fit in. It caught the paralysing fear and raw grief of the deadly first years of the Aids epidemic. It tightly intertwined the personal and the political. It ranged fabulously far and wide, transporting the audience from Brooklyn to Antarctica to heaven and to the drug-induced hallucinations of the sick. It used the possibilities of theatre to create a giddying sense of lost bearings.
Fifteen years later, it still speaks to us, still impresses with its mix of pathos and pizzazz, still moves with its faith in human courage and is often eerily prescient. But in shape, it now seems far too much a child of its time. Like the power-suits of the Eighties, it feels overblown – it just does not know when to stop. Reagan, Republicanism, Aids, love, religion, fear, hypocrisy, death, justice, corruption, the state of America, the collapse of the Soviet Union – there is a lot to talk about. But seven hours? It goes on and on, shrivelling your enthusiasm as the hours tick by. Epic theatre can leave you feeling energised and exhilarated. Daniel Kramer’s revival for Headlong Theatre leaves you feeling exhausted.
In essence, the two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika weave together the disintegrating worlds of two unhappy couples. Prior and Louis are gay and Prior, as the play opens, reveals that he has Aids. His advancing illness and Louis’s inability to cope with it form one major narrative strand. The other is the collapsing marriage of a Mormon couple, Harper (hooked on Valium) and Joe (a repressed homosexual Republican lawyer). The two stories twine around each other like honeysuckle and ivy. Further entangled in the action are a gay black nurse (a fabulous performance from Obi Abili), Joe’s Mormon mother (Ann Mitchell, also very good) and the corrupt right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn (Greg Hicks, lithe and lethal as a snake), who is also dying of Aids. Hicks is superb: a man driven by malignant energy, who refuses to be labelled gay because “homosexuals have zero clout” and who dies fizzing and spitting like a neon light. Guilt and denial hang in the air; angels and spirits attend the afflicted, coaxing, challenging and provoking them.
The play soars then sags, breaks your heart one moment, bores you the next. The heart-rending scene in which Prior dreams he is well again and dances with Louis in a swirl of dry ice is movingly staged. Kramer’s production delivers well too on Kushner’s dazzling, acid humour. But the play’s verbosity weighs it down, the fantasy sequences begin to grate and the characters stay too much on one note. There is a tendency, whenever the pace drops, for the production to pump up the volume or the energy, neither of which works. Adam Levy, as Louis, hurtles about the stage in a state of constant anguish. Kirsty Bushell, as Harper, is monotonously hysterical. The small cast works extremely hard, but in places it is like watching a group of people straining to push a juggernaut out of the mud.
Jo Stone-Fewings is touching as the conflicted Joe and Mark Emerson as Prior travels from despair to a wild, challenging beauty, so shaping the play’s journey towards hope. But this is one angel that could do with shedding some feathers.
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