National Theatre, London – until 19 August 2017
Direct comparisons are dangerous, even when – as this week – two consecutive days see major works opening in London, both set in the 1980s and concerned with nation, ancestry and internal division. Butterworth’s magnificent The Ferrymen last night showed a Northern Ireland divided in the age of hardline Thatcherism; this NT revival under Marianne Elliott’s direction is of Tony Kushner’s Reagan-era howl of liberal dismay, combined with a threnody for gay men’s victimised alienation in the dawning of AIDS.
So there are parallels. But it is hard, after the fizzing warm naturalism of Butterworth’s farm-kitchen, to bond immediately with Kushner’s often self-conscious wordiness. His characters are sometimes almost Shavian in their reluctance to stop gnawing repetitively over every socio-political bone. The play’s odd pacing jars too : there is really no need for two intervals, as Ian MacNeil’s setting of revolving roomlets needs no fussy resetting (indeed in the last acts the set does its own tricks, spectacularly). But the double interval breaks up an already episodic play, making it feel oddly more dated than it need be.
It need not, because in the age of Trump the echoes are useful. Kushner uses the real Republican lawyer and keen McCarthyite homophobe Roy M. Cohn as a key character, weaving in and out of the lives of two fictional couples. And when as Cohn Nathan Lane – always a treat! – breaks out into roars of contempt for legality (“Law is pliable! What the fuck is, this, Sunday school? This is enzymes, bloodshed, politics!”) you sense a proto- Trump. There’s the same contempt, the bending of truth, the same dismaying but almost attractive jollity of energy. Though there is no jollity when Denise Gough – normally rather wasted as the disturbed, depressed housewife Harper Pitt – slimes onstage crossdressed in a sharp suit as the Reagan insider Heller.
That sense of a runaway, opportunistically religious political right shouting for “the end of liberalism, of ipso facto secular humanism” is topical. The gay angst at the play’s heart is less so, thank heavens, but it is worth remembering that first terror of AIDS, and the sudden, sometimes unmeetable, duty on young healthy men to become carers for disintegrating lovers. Not to mention the fear of coming out at all, for fear of being branded a danger to society and probably a Commie.
But a play must work on an emotional level too, and here it is fitful. Kushner does fatally over-write, though there are treasurable lines: Jewish Louis’ at a funeral moaning “I always get so closety at these family things” , his dying lover Prior’s “You know you’ve hit rock bottom when drag is a drag”. Or Susan Brown’s Mormon Mum Hannah, losing patience asking for street directions from a rambling homeless woman : “I’m sorry you’re psychotic, but just make the effort!”. There are some tremendous short scenes, too, which keep it moving. Even though caring deeply about these people is harder than it should be.
Some do at moments touch the heart. Russell Tovey’s anguished Mormon Joe is restrainedly moving in his pious, panicked denial of his nature, fascinated from childhood with a picture of Jacob wrestling with a particularly buff angel. James McArdle is Louis, who can’t bring himself to stay with his sick lover, and is at his best in a scene delivering Kushner’s satirically observed paranoid-liberal-Jewish ramblings about racism to the patient, irritated Belize: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the most sympathetic character, an Afro-American nurse and drag queen. Indeed Stewart-Jarrett, fondly tending the dying deserted Prior, is one of the standout stars of the play.
The other is Prior Walter himself, its dying centre: camp but movingly gallant, it’s a humorous, suffering and boyishly open-hearted performance by Andrew Garfield. He is perfect, from the first jokey awareness that the curse has come upon him to the extraordinary near-death hallucination scenes where he is greeted by a 15c ancestor (broad Yorkshire, earthy, grumpy) and a 17c forebear ( Nathan Lane again , flouncing for England this time in a curly periwig). It is hard to play princessy-queeny with so much real, mortal feeling beneath it. Garfield achieves that.
Afterword: regarding PERESTROIKA
It was for critics a two-show day, but I must leave star-ratings and final analysis of this second one to an (angelic?) host of colleagues online and in print. For 95 minutes in, the first interval found me hosting a sweating temperature and spinning head (no fault of the production) so the mice and I had to bail out for everyone’s sake. Nothing spoils a retro “gay fantasy on national themes” like women keeling over in the stalls.
So here’s what I can report for theatrecatters:
Those who know PERESTROIKA, the sequel to the above, will remember that we meet again the same characters, who gradually grope towards personal and political reconciliation, albeit by way of a some ornately written dream-sequence mystico-bollocks involving a multiple-vaginaed angel seducing the still-dying Prior, and a wrenching separation for Louis and Mormon Joe because it transpires that a whiny New York Jewish liberal can never quite get along with a Reaganite, however luscious.
I can confidently report, though, from seeing the long first act that production and design do it even prouder this time, with acrobatic Finn Caldwell puppetry making a sinister angel of Amanda Lawrence, and Tovey becoming a Mormon-visitor-centre diorama puppet. And also note that for anybody with a taste for magnificently villainous invective there is the AIDS-stricken Cohn in a hospital bed now, outraged by only having one phone line, selfishly hoarding AZT. Glad I didn’t miss Nathan Lane splenetically informing the other Nathan – Stewart-Jarrett as the tolerant gay nurse – that when he had pubic lice once, he actually admired them for their itchy tenacity because they exemplified his hard-Republican philosophy : “Fuck nice! You want to be nice or you want to be effective?!”
Enjoy. Hope it makes your head spin in a more benign way than mine.