Angels in America
Taylor, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
In 1988, Max Stafford-Clark - then Artistic Director of the Royal Court - recorded, in a soon-to-be-published rehearsal diary, his dismay at recent shifts of taste. "London's current tide in theatrical chic," he wrote, "is swinging towards groups such as Theatre de Complicite (enormously skilled absurdism) and to Cheek By Jowl (cheeky versions of the classics) . . . Plays that take on public issues may no longer carry the public with them."
Would intelligent audiences increasingly settle for "effects without causes" (to adapt Wagner's quip against Meyerbeer)? With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how some of the most soaringly imaginative stagework of the subsequent years exuberantly swept aside the barriers between issue- driven theatre and theatre that revels in its own rampant theatricality. Not least that produced by the creative teams of Cheek By Jowl, Complicite, Gloria and DV8.
Take what, on any reckoning, must be judged a landmark play of the Nineties. Tackling the Aids crisis, fundamentalism, religious intolerance, corruption in high places, perestroika as both fact and metaphor, and the need for change in a US that is "terminal, mean and crazy", Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1991-3) can scarcely be accused of tiptoeing past the great subjects of the day. But to describe the play thus makes it sound like a collaboration between Arthur Miller and Larry Kramer, whereas Kushner's vast, cosmic soap opera (with its campily equivocal Angel who could have stepped out of a Bette Midler concert, and its epic trip up to a literally god-forsaken heaven) just as often resembles a bracing collision between Dante, say, and Divine. The Royal Court, it's rumoured, turned the play down. Richard Eyre, at the National, demonstrated his acumen as this period's greatest theatrical producer, by snapping it up and by realising that the heady interaction between its moral seriousness and its mockingly baroque, genre-switching sensibility might best be served not by a new-writing specialist but (ironically enough) by Cheek By Jowl's Declan Donnellan, a director deprecated above for bringing impudent camp to the classic repertoire. Exemplified by both the aesthetics and the reception of Angels, the last decade has seen a remarkable overturning of the received wisdom about gay drama and the mainstream. The traditional test for broad appeal has always been: would the play work as well if you replaced the homosexual characters with straight ones? To judge from the success of, say, Kevin Elyot's Aids-haunted tragi-comedy My Night with Reg, which transferred from the Court to the West End, the test has changed to: how can distinctively gay experience deepen our understanding of universal problems and emotions? In this case: loss, betrayal, grieving, and the pained secrecies and inequalities that must exist between a "widow" and the deceased's long-standing clandestine "mistress" (the very awkwardness of those terms, when applied to same- sex relationships, indicating how the difficulties are intensified). …