‘[…] She carried the old world on her back across the ocean […] and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it on to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.’
Tony Kushner’s seminal 1991 play, Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches, begins at the funeral service of Louis Ironson’s (William Ridd Foxton) grandmother, and these words spoken in a monologue by Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz (Lili Herbert) prefix the play with the continued presence of history, the importance of legacy and, crucially, the role of the human body in these processes.
These themes feel crucial for a 2020 production of Kushner’s play, as our conception of the AIDS crisis today is suffused by the intergenerational trauma felt by the LGBT community. More recently, the playwright Matthew Lopez confronted the intergenerational effects of the AIDS crisis in his 2018 play The Inheritance, which in many ways mirrors Angels in America due to its bipartite structure, as well as its preoccupation with the political landscape and its awareness that history is constantly in construction.
Set in 1985, Angels in America Part 1 follows various characters in New York City affected by the AIDS crisis. It largely centres on the politically engaged but self-involved Louis Ironson and his flamboyant and quick-witted boyfriend Prior Walter (Zakkai Goriely), whose relationship breaks down after Prior’s AIDS diagnosis. It also follows Joe Pitt (Connor Johnston), a strict Mormon who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality; his wife Harper Pitt (Maya Jasinska), who spends her days cooped up in their apartment plagued by intrusive of thoughts; and Roy Cohn (Eddie Margolis), a high-powered lawyer who, after being diagnosed with AIDS by his doctor, reveals that in his private life he is a ‘man who has sex with other men’, but shrugs off the ‘label’ of homosexuality: ‘Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man […] who fucks around with guys.’ Crucially, Kushner’s characters embody a diverse cross section of queerness that runs from those that openly operate within the LBGT community of 1980s New York, to those who function within the American establishment but reject queer collective identity.
Due to its subject matter, Kushner’s play is preoccupied with the body, and the parallel, sometimes intersecting networks of these characters’ narratives echo the systems of the body. Matter of Act Productions convey this sense of interconnectedness effectively through the play’s blocking. This is seen in particular when the Louis-Prior and Joe-Harper narratives navigate the stage simultaneously, Prior and Harper mirroring each other’s actions to convey their common alienation within their respective relationships.
The acting performances in this production are of a high standard. I was particularly struck by Will Ridd Foxton, whose exceptional comic timing delivers welcome relief, for example in the scene between Louis and Joe in the work bathroom – ‘Well, oh boy. A Gay Republican.’ He also manages to pinpoint Louis’s restlessness, and in his political ponderings we get the sense that Louis is avoiding a more serious confrontation with his emotional state. I was also highly impressed by Lili Herbert, particularly in the first monologue as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, who possessed a quick-wittedness and a gravitas that signifies a particularly sophisticated acting ability. Maya Jasinska’s Harper also managed to convey vividly the burden of hallucination and intrusive thoughts without slipping into stereotypes surrounding female madness which lack nuance. I must confess that I was strapped in for some nervy pronunciation, but I was pleasantly surprised by the success and stability of the entire casts’ American accents.
Problems, however, arose in this production in its technical and aesthetic areas. The set design in general was disappointingly sparse for an O’Reilly production, although I was impressed by the addition of an angel lit with EL wires at the play’s end. I personally believe it would have functioned better if it consisted of various versatile set pieces that remained on stage for the play’s entirety in order to reduce transitions, which proved unnecessarily clunky and long. This generally worked to slow down the momentum of the performance. Moreover, in the third act discussions amongst the stage crew backstage were audible, serving to distract heavily from the performance. I would just urge the production company to tighten up these varying elements in order to elevate the performance. Although these critiques appear nit-picky, I personally believe that these kinds of details are pivotal in doing such high quality acting performances justice.
Kushner’s text is a great one and impressive to take on in a student environment. With its vibrant performances, this production should be watched by the Oxford community – not only to remind us of these not so distant but easily forgotten events in our history, but also crucially to inform us about how these kinds of stories, and the rhetoric that surrounds them, live on.