The major difficulty with producing a show such as Angels in America, one that has an inherent political focus specific to the time of its writing, is reestablishing its relevance. The play centres upon the issues of gay rights and the fear of the HIV virus during the mid 80’s. Early on in the play, Prior Walter, the protagonist, reveals to his boyfriend, Louis Ironson, that he has contracted HIV. Louis quickly finds that he cannot care for Prior due to his own fear of the disease and distress at witnessing the deterioration of his lover. In another plot strand, Roy Cohn learns that he has contracted HIV and to preserve his reputation firmly insists to the outside world that he has instead been diagnosed with liver cancer. Meanwhile, Joe and Harper Pitt, a Mormon couple, struggle in their fruitless marriage; Joe is a closeted homosexual. Whilst at times these interwoven stories were striking, ultimately I feel that the issues associated with HIV and gay rights have changed significantly since the play’s initial production. In the developed world HIV is no longer a subject of taboo, nor are its victims shunned. The sense of foreboding built around the approach of the millennium falls flat as we know all too well that things will indeed get better. This is not to say that life cannot be breathed into this play, as some of its writing is superb, but only that Waldrop’s rendition felt rather anachronistic.
This show was a veritable salmagundi of striking theatre and melodrama. Whilst aspects of the show were powerful, these pieces were weighed down by the bulk of the production. William Brady deserves much praise for his performance as Roy Cohn. With his quick tongue and excellent vocal control, he easily stole the show from the rest of the cast. His portrayal of Cohn’s own struggle to retain his reputation was utterly convincing. Though in St Andrews for less than a year, Brady has quickly shown himself to be one of the best actors in town. The brief appearances of Kufasse Boane brought a refreshing touch of comedy to the show, and I can only say that I wished to have seen more of her through the performance. The struggle between Joe and Harper Pitt (played by Sebastien Carrington-Howell and Edie Deffebach respectively) was moving in particular scenes, but by the third act their troubles felt repetitive and dry. This was one of the main problems of the play. Most performances in the show were sound for the first two acts, but by the third they began to falter. Characters lost their momentum, and the ending was more pantomime than revelation. As this is only the first piece of a two part play, perhaps more rigorous editing may have been made by the director to present St Andrews with a more concise version of Kushner’s script*.
Waldrop and her production team made good use of Venue 1, a difficult thing to do. The set was simple yet effective. The section representing the residence of the Pitts was reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, and conveyed clearly the confusion and paranoia of Edie Deffebach’s character even before she spoke. A similar attention to detail was paid to the costumes used in the show. Sadly, the lighting and effects were forceful and gaudy. The final scene of the show, with the back walls of the set shuddering apart, and the grand reveal of the angel, resplendent in lopsided wings that brushed the lighting, brought this issue to the fore.
One question that begs to be asked is this: does Angels in America best represent St Andrews theatre? I do not believe it does. And yet, the production is set for Edinburgh later this year, being one of the two Mermaids funded shows to be put on at The Fringe. This lends itself to a further criticism of Mermaids’ decision to send two productions to the Fringe before they had ever been staged (Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie’s version of The Tempest is not even showing in St Andrews.) This seems to defy any sense of a meritocracy within the university’s main theatre funding body: Fringe-sized funding falls to productions under the pretense of anticipated success. Relatedly, theatre in St Andrews is best at its most raw, and it is a shame to note that no student written pieces are being funded to go to the Fringe.
In the end, Angels in America, is a mongrel creature that is likely to cause some controversy within the Mermaids community. When reaching for grandeur it falls short of the mark, and with only cardboard wings to support it this angel is a rather flightless bird.
*A note to any potential audience members, this show is long. I entered the Union at 6:50 pm for a scheduled door opening at 7:00. After opening the doors twenty minutes late, and let’s remember that on the show’s Facebook page attendants were urged to arrive closer to 6:30, I then sat through the three acts and two intermissions to leave at no less than 10:45. I have no reservations in regards to watching a long show, but it seems only common courtesy to forewarn audiences of a production’s running time. For a show put on in a university town, where students may expect to be able to see a play before getting dinner and going home to study, this lack of honesty could be seen as foolhardy.
Photo credit goes to Kelly Diepenbrock