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Posts Tagged ‘Tony Kushner’

When I first saw these Tony Kushner plays 24-25 years ago, in the NT’s Cottesloe auditorium, there was a gap of more than a year between them; the second play, Perestroika, hadn’t been written when the first, Millennium Approaches, opened. I saw both parts of the only London revival, Headlong at the Lyric Hammersmith ten years ago, in one day, but then it seemed like recent history. I repeated that experience at the latest revival in the National’s Lyttelton theatre on Wednesday, but now ‘the AIDS plays’, as many called them, feel like much more than that, and in so many ways bang up-to-date.

Prior and Louis are a gay couple; the former hails from early English immigrants and the latter from more recent Jewish immigrants. Pryor has AIDS and his close gay African-American friend Belize is an AIDS nurse, who is reluctantly looking after a racist, homophobic, corrupt Jewish lawyer called Roy Cohn, who disguises his condition as liver cancer. Roy’s protege, object of his desires, and possible sexual partner, is a closeted Mormon called Joe, whose agoraphobic, depressive wife Harper and Mormon mom Hannah, who becomes Pryor’s unlikely friend, are also characters. Joe begins a relationship with Louis when the latter deserts his sick lover. Roy M Cohn was a real person, right-hand man to chief witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and sometime lawyer to Donald Trump, representing him in the now infamous racist rental case, who appears to have been a mentor, even role model, to the current president. Of course, it’s set in the reign of that other celebrity president Ronald Regan, but in lines written 26 years ago, we hear things we heard last year.

Marianne Elliott’s new staging starts intimately, with scenes stage front on small sets on three side-by-side revolves. This continues for two of the three parts of the first play and, though emotionally engaging, wasn’t as epic as I remembered, and for someone who needs visual as well as narrative stimulation, constituted a slowish start. From here, though, it opens out with small scenes in a giant space giving the epic feel I expected, with scenes in the second play changed by the Angel’s spider-like puppeteers crawling eerily. It fully sustained it’s 6.5 hour playing time, over a 10 hour period, to the point where the gaps felt like waiting time during which you became impatient to return. The inclusion of two intervals in each part was the right decision though.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast, packed full of favourite actors. I first saw a very promising Andrew Garfield eleven years ago in another theatre in the same building, but I had no idea he would grow into the extraordinary talent that plays Prior now. I’ve admired James McArdle’s stage work for years, most notably as King James, also next door, but his Louis is a new career high. Russell Tovey first wowed me at the opening night of The History Boys on the same stage and here he is owning it in a more difficult role as introspective Joe, whose eventual emotional explosions take your breath away. I’ve only seen (and loved) Nathan Lane in The Producers, so watching him create the monster that is Roy Cohn was a revelation. I’ve seen little of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s work, but now can’t wait to see more; he brings Belize alive by wordless facial expressions, then adds a delicious bite with his dialogue. Denise Gough continues to impress in another tough role in the shadow of so many larger-than-life characters, her restraint amplifying the emotional outbursts. In addition to Hannah, who Susan Brown navigates from conservative Mormon to loving friend, she plays three men – a Rabbi, a doctor, and an old Bolshevik – plus the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, one of Roy Cohn’s victims, in a series of terrific performances. The ever wonderful Amanda Lawrence gives us our Angel, but also many others in another set of fine turns. What an ensemble.

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, this will be another of those days that justify my obsession with the stage. No other art form could provide such a dramatic feast that leaves you exhausted and emotionally drained, but energised, thrilled and deeply satisfied at the same time. I woke up the following morning feeling completely blessed.

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How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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Tony Kushner writes great plays with dreadful titles. The full title of this one is The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He wrote one of the greatest plays of the second half of the 20th century, the two-part six-hour Angels in America, both parts first seen together here in 1993 and returning to the NT in 2017. He hasn’t produced much original work since, none of it anywhere near a match for AiA. It’s been a long time since I saw a big, meaty play and I found this a real theatrical feast.

Whereas AiA was epic, iHo is a family saga, though it seems like a lot more once you’ve taken it all in. Gus Marcantonio is an Italian American longshoreman who made his name as a union man. His eldest son Pill is gay, in a long-term relationship but with an addiction to paying for sex, latterly with money borrowed from his sister Empty, four years his junior. Empty has left her husband Adam and is in a lesbian relationship with Maeve, who is pregnant with a child from sperm donated by Empty’s younger brother V, who is married with two young children. V is ten years younger, his mother died giving birth to him, and he’s the only one of Gus’ children who hasn’t followed his politics or indeed career. Keeping up?

They meet at the family brownstone in Brooklyn because Gus thinks he’s getting Alzheimer’s so he wants to sell the house, share out the proceeds and die, a year on from an earlier attempted suicide. His sister Clio is currently in residence. She used to be a nun, before becoming involved in dubious left-wing militant groups like Shining Path. Empty’s ex Adam is also in residence. All sorts of family history, some surprises and more than one cupboard full of skeletons emerge in this dense, complex and dramatically rich concoction. It becomes a struggle to keep up when the dialogue overlaps, which is often. This adds to the realism, but is pushed a bit two far in the second section. 

Tom Piper has designed an austere three-story revolving house, though most of the action takes place in a ground floor living room occupied by little more than a couple of tables and some chairs. There’s not much to distract you from the unfolding story. It would be invidious to single out performances from such a terrific ensemble. Quite how they keep it all together at times is beyond me; it must be a real challenge to speak your lines in a conversation with another character whilst there are several other conversations going on – it was hard enough listening.

I left the theatre deeply satisfied, full to the brim but not bloated after an excellent theatrical meal. We get so few of these really meaty plays in the Miller / O’Neill / Tennessee Williams mould these days. Now I can’t wait for the AiA revival next year.

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It’s a long way from the epic Angels in America to this – and I’m afraid it’s all downhill. I thought Tony Kushner was a major new playwright, but everything since Angels (with the exception of the musical Caroline, or Change) suggests he’s more of a one-hit-wonder. Only one of these five short plays really works – the rest is like Beckett on acid.

The first play has Albania’s Queen Zog with a fictional American musician on the moon. It’s preposterous, pointless and dreadfully over-acted. The second is a conversation between a lesbian therapist and her gay ex-client; I haven’t got a clue what it was about. The third takes an interesting true story of tax evasion but by presenting it as a breathless monologue I became so irritated that I stopped paying attention to the story. If you return after the interval (we did!) the fourth is another obtuse sketch about a man in paradise. The play that does work is the last one – a chilling tale where Laura Bush reads Dostoyevsky to dead Iraqi children. Sadly, this is too little to late.

I found a lot of the acting coarse, but given the material this may be excusable. Of course, it may be that I’m just thick, but it seems to me Kushner is following the well-worn path of others like Beckett, Pinter and Churchill; playwrights whose become minimalist with work so ambiguous, so obtuse and so obscure that they appear to be disappearing up their own backsides (or in this case, butt – he’s American). 

It’s also a long way from Minneapolis, but I have to be honest and say that from where I was sitting it was a wasted journey.

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