Angels In America Is So Gay

Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is an epic play. It’s epic in length: together Parts 1 and 2 come to some eight hours of stage time. It’s epic in theme: it combines the AIDS crisis with Reaganite politics with tales of migration with unrest in heaven. It’s epic in presentation: angels descend from the skies, burning books rise through the floors and ghosts prance about on stage. It’s so epic in fact that I think it counts as a modern-day myth – it hones in so painfully close on the intimate details of the characters’ unhappy lives that we end up passing through their blood cells only to see stars. Not to mention its exploration of the history of the Jewish people in America, the impacts of the religion of neoliberal capitalism a la Reagan and the pain of being homosexual in a straight man’s world. Not forgetting the ghosts, heavenly hosts and valium-induced trips to Antarctica either! That really is epic.

I saw Part 1 at London’s National Theatre last night. It comes in three sections (we had two intervals!) and I’d say the first third is pretty tepid as the odd set of giant Lego-like structures jars with the up-close introduction to the protagonists. The second third gets a little warmer as the actors get into role (and I stopped comparing it with the epic HBO series which had Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, tough to beat), even if they did rely a little too much on shouting at other. It’s the third third that blew me away as the seams of reality start to unravel, the Lego bricks get pushed backstage and the sh*t hits the fan. This is when the epic got epic.

Set in 1985 and written in 1993 Angels In America is, in many ways, a period piece but one that still resonates today. It explores the early years of a politico-economic order that we have inherited and isn’t doing well. As one character tells us towards the end of Part 1, “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.” So we’re living on the other side of Millennium and very much plunging into the crack, and not the sort of crack you might plunge into on a night stroll through Central Park. Whilst some of the characters appear to be cliché, for example, Belize the sassy, black drag queen (who only gets to steal one scene in Part 1 but will come back with a vengeance in Part 2), I think kudos is due to playwright Tony Kushner for inventing these clichés before they were clichés. However, I think both these concerns are reminders that we need more gay fantasias, lots more. Queer ones too and lesbian and trans and asexual and intersex and as multi-coloured as possible. We also need plays to remind us that today many people live with HIV and live very happily. Of course, many do not and the medication is still not widely available and there is just far too much stigma, as Angels aptly demonstrates. And that’s the thing about myths, while they are embedded in a certain time and place, say, Ancient Rome, a galaxy far, far away or 1980s New York, and focus on certain people’s lives they have the ability to transcend all this and echo throughout the ages. They appear universal because they tap deep into the human condition, a condition that might regularly change its clothes but still beats the same, dark blood. We might learn our lessons one day but in the mean time we can dance with those angels in America (bring on Part 2).

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Donald Trump Meets Mack The Knife

Mack the Knife is the psychopathic protagonist of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, now showing at the National Theatre in London. He’s misogynistic, greedy, ruthless arch-villain who is obsessed with money. Incidentally he has much in common with Donald Trump, currently doing the rounds in Trumpageddon at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. One opera and a one-man show both painting bleak portraits of the world. The former a nihilistic, musical satire and the latter an ominous omen for things to come (but hopefully won’t).

The Threepenny Opera first. Wow. What a show. All singing, all dancing, with bits of set flying around the place, a band on stage, costumes to die for (and die in) and lots of jazzy smoke effects. It wasn’t quite Cabaret (but then again that’s a musical not an opera if we’re going to quibble) but Mack’s London is one of back stabbing, front stabbing and rape. It’s not a fun place to be and that’s the point. The joke’s on the audience as we’re mocked for wasting our cash on a show like this, a show full of low lifes and reprobates. Meanwhile, Brecht’s script does its best to ‘alienate’ us – “playing in such a way that the audience [is] hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances [is] meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious” (Brecht). Yup, no sitting back and relaxing, instead we’re regularly reminded by the script that not only is this a play, what with characters shouting “scene change” and “interval”, but it’s also a visciously barbed reflection/refraction of the world we live in. Whilst that’s all well and good not being allowed to connect with the characters meant I didn’t really care what happened to them, especially Mack  as he was such an utter b*stard. It also didn’t help that Rory Kinnear, who plays Mack, couldn’t quite maintain his accent (was it meant to be Cockney or Russian or posh English?).

Someone who can maintain an accent is Simon Jay. His show Trumpegedden sold out at the Edinburgh Fringe and won many an accolade including an article in the Guardian and now it’s come down to London town. First I have to make a disclaimer: I know Simon (but I don’t know Kinnear) and think he’s a thoroughly good bloke but when I went to greet him before the show my arm was practically yanked off in a handshake from his orange faced, peroxide blond Trump. He was in character all night and it was terrifyingly brilliant. As he shoved his blond assistant around the stage, as he offended the audience, as he contradicted himself without qualm (often verbatim), so we were given a glimpse of an all too possible world should the real Trump win the vote in little over 50 days time! This will be a world of open hostility and violence that will be worse for women, the LGBTQIA community, people of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, people of colour and so many more. Basically anyone who isn’t white, male, American and rich. We’re fucking doomed if this guy wins and Mack’s dodgy London will appear a mere prelude to apocalypse. So share this new Avaaz thing to encourage US voters around the world to vote (even if they’re not in the US), go watch Simon’s play (next/last show Monday 19th September) and then swing by the NT if you fancy an opera (personally, I’d recommend Chicago).