The National Theatre have begun a series of talks and events relating to their mammoth, hit play Angels in America, starting with Tony Kushner discussing his plays and work in conversation with Ola Animashawun and continuing with other members of the cast/ crew of the play.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a talk chaired by Kate Bassett, as Andrew Garfield, who plays Prior Walter, and Denise Gough, who plays Harper Pitt, discussed their experiences of performing in the epically relevant show. It is clear from the praise and awards both actors have been receiving that they are masters of their craft and at the top of their game but sometimes this level of ‘celebrity’ status can make people seem sort of mystical. So it was lovely to see them in an intimate, laid back setting to prove that although they’re supremely talented, they’re just like everyone else. Kate, Andrew and Denise sat on the stage in front of the angel set of part two: Perestroika whilst we filled the auditorium of the Lyttleton theatre.
The pair spent the majority of the time praising one another, their other cast members and the incredible writing of Tony Kushner. It’s truly lovely to see how passionate they both are about the work they’re doing with Andrew describing it as “the most fulfilling experience [he’ll] ever hope to have.” When asked why she initially took the role of Harper, Denise explained that after her Olivier award winning role in People, Places and Things she thought Angels would be a walk in the park. However, soon discovered she was wrong and didn’t realise how much the role would take out of her. Despite having time off stage she said she is so mentally attached that time isn’t a break, stating that “profound writing has a profound effect” with Andrew echoing the amount of work and energy that goes into playing Prior and that Kushner’s writing “demands you to surrender”.
This led into a particularly interesting discussion when an audience member asked how the cast take care of themselves to perform in such a demanding and long show. Andrew spoke candidly about how actors are expected to answer that it’s a breeze but how it really is draining to give that much on stage all the time. He spoke about the effects on his mental health and how completing the play is his form of self care. Although it’s long, especially on a two show day, he explained how getting to the end is somewhat of a therapeutic experience. Denise agreed with this, also laughing about the amount of self-care remedies she has, including massages, reflexology and air purifying!
A personal highlight of the talk was when the pair spoke about the need for connection and how this play provides that. “People flock to certain shows in the West End and I think that’s all about connection.” This is certainly true and in the dark times the country is going through at the minute I think it’s really important to have an escape and a safe place where we can all unify over shared interests. Both actors said how they feel that the audience are really part of the play, especially on two show days and that the curtain call feels like an applause for both the cast and audience. Andrew described it as a “communion with the audience. Us all going through the same things together and how prevalent and necessary it is to tell this story right now.”
Andrew and Denise are both hilarious, frequently taking the mickey out of themselves and again proving how normal they are. Especially funny moments were when Andrew exclaimed “Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister” and when he explained how although he doesn’t identify as a gay man, he is basically living as one “just without the physical act” and how Ru Paul’s Drag Race was an extensive and essential part of his research process: “every Sunday I would have eight friends over and we would just watch Ru”.
Overall this was a wonderful and enlightening talk on one of the theatrical highlights of the season. It’s incredible to see such passionate performers talk so candidly and emotionally about the struggles of their roles as well as what goes into performing such a colossal play. The National is one of the most accessible in the West End and this series of talks is just another example of that. If you haven’t seen Angels in America then you better get in that returns queue because you don’t want to miss out!