Gary Abrahams’ production of Angels in America is stark and shrewd, and has in Helen Morse a virtuosic display of restrained acting.

By Peter Craven.

‘Angels in America’

Angels in America’s Helen Morse.
Angels in America’s Helen Morse.
Credit: Sarah Walker

Angels in America is the great play of 25 years ago and arguably the last great work of the American dramatic consciousness to go into the vast water supply of the popular imagination. This is in large measure because, despite its vast length, it was filmed for television by the great Mike Nichols, the man who had filmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Burton and Taylor and who did not live, any more than his middle-aged star did, to leave a cinematic record of his Philip Seymour Hoffman Death of a Salesman, widely regarded as the greatest ever.

Angels in America is Tony Kushner’s collective tragedy and fantasia – because its vision is more than tragic – of the AIDS epidemic and what can be wrested from it. Nichols filmed it with Al Pacino as the evil Roy Cohn, dying of an AIDS to which he won’t admit, and Meryl Streep in a variety of male and female roles including Ethel Rosenberg, who Cohn had sent to the chair. They are performances of such mythical grandeur that everything afterwards will be compared to them, and that’s probably also true of Emma Thompson’s Angel, who is a clarion call of classicism in a world of yabbering demotic darkness.

Pacino’s performance as Cohn is such a tragic mask of the ravaged horror of America’s capacity to look past itself that it is said to overshadow even Nathan Lane’s, whose Roy Cohn for Britain’s National Theatre is on its way to Broadway and can be seen in the NT Live broadcast showing now.

Notwithstanding all of this – or any memory of Neil Armfield’s 1994 production for Belvoir and the Melbourne Theatre Company with Jacek Koman – Gary Abrahams’ production of this strange chiaroscuro of a gay soap opera for a time of plague is a glowing and riveting piece of work performed with a sweeping authority in the modest space of fortyfivedownstairs. Significant aspects of the production are as good or better than anything you would find elsewhere.

Helen Morse in the Streep medley of roles (rabbi, Mormon mother, Ethel Rosenberg and one more, the doctor) is staggering, with a soaring authority that confirms all over again her reputation as the greatest Australian actress of her generation (well, let’s face it, any generation). And Grant Cartwright as the AIDS victim is wonderfully open and complex, illuminated by sun and darkened by horror, but as good as you could hope to see. That is scarcely true of Brian Lipson as Cohn, although his mincing malignancy and mannerisms are more suited to this role than to many.

Margaret Mills has sound and fury as the Angel as well as homespun credibility elsewhere, but not the sense of Other Worlds, that voice from the great beyond that should command. Still, this is a production that is very strong and credible at nearly every point; it roams and it ranges. Apart from Lipson, the American accents are carried effortlessly and idiomatically and you get a real sense from Abrahams’ Angels in America, with its easy command of campness and flippant sexism and piety and its inverse, of yesterday’s world turning into today’s.

Kushner’s play is more formidable than you remember it because it represents such a complex dialectical argument with any sentiment you might reduce it to and it is full of risky, bitchy humour that takes in everything and has plenty of room for every naysaying perspective in any quarter of any human heart. He is brilliant in capturing Midwestern wryness and Mormon sensibility and the reasons the heart doesn’t want to know about. Angels in America is also an anthem for the common person in which Kushner wants to celebrate via elegy the tears in things for any lowdown degenerate as well as the potential illumination.

The latter aspect of the play, its angelology, so to speak, is extraordinary and is handled with a combination of great grace and immense dramatic force. Had Kushner been reading the great scholar of the Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, friend of Walter Benjamin? Who knows. It’s astonishing the way he constructs a kind of New York mythology that is essentially Jewish while having its own affinity with the homespun Church of Latter-day Saints in a kind of apocalyptic vision – compatible enough with Harold Bloom’s sense of the gnostic know-how of the Land of the Free – but effected, as if from nowhere, with extraordinary dramatic originality.

How on earth he managed to create a late-20th-century drama that is symbolistic while also having snatches of susurrating lingo that might have been out of Foster Wallace, the lord only knows.

And Abrahams captures all this, not flawlessly, but with an all-but-absolute steadiness and sureness of touch. Yes, it might have been better to have had a classical actress such as Jane Montgomery Griffiths as the Angel, someone who could simply hit the note with flawless commanding rhetoric. And Lipson has always fancied himself as having the kind of voice that, as Kenneth Tynan said of Paul Scofield, can speak out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells, or, if you like, a voice like James Mason’s, of saturnine and potentially sinister magnificence, whereas he is in fact a character actor who imagines he has a voice of singular distinction.

As Cohn, he lurches between Brooklyn and the East End. Still, this determinedly ugly performance does have a bravura aspect and catches something of the self-desecrated agony of the character’s self-betrayal. But to have found an Australian Cohn who would balance Morse’s medley the way Pacino balanced Streep’s you would have to have a Geoffrey Rush or Richard Roxburgh in his high and terrible Roger Rogerson mode.

Morse really is that good. She works by principle of absolute restraint, clairvoyantly, invisibly. She is a revelation as Ethel Rosenberg and she is absolutely credible as the shrewd unlovable Mormon mom who instructs Cartwright that he just has to keep wrestling with that angel until it blesses him.

It doesn’t matter that this production is bare, and sometimes barn-like. The flashes of illumination from the moving beds and the absolute authenticity of every atom of Cartwright’s performance are an invitation to the intimations of the gods. Cartwright’s Prior is not like Morse’s incomparable dazzle, but it is a performance that could hold any stage in the world. This is a Hamlet of a calling card. Cartwright carries the full weight of Kushner’s dramatic mythography and he does it under Abrahams’ direction, like an actor turned into a prophet who has met his Sinai and is equal to the climb. There are stretches of this imperfect production of this garrulous, grandiose play where you say, “Oh yeah”, but there are more where you exclaim, “My God.”

What a wonderful play Angels in America is, and how lucky we are to have Abrahams marshal a production with a total command of its wry and lame American vernacular, its surging grandeur and its lilting sense of the Kaddish that must be said for every black-hearted soul – and Helen Morse recites the Hebrew with all its dazzling glottal stops and aspirants as if she had mastered it telepathically in a former life.

Don’t allow yourself to be discouraged: everyone who cares about acting should see this production for Morse and they should be proud that Cartwright is as good as he is in the central role. What a strange sad allegory of our theatre it is that this smell-of-an-oily-rag production of Angels in America is far better than we would normally dare dream of on any of the main stages of the country. It captures radically but securely the supreme uncanniness of this mutated piece of epic theatre, this moody and many-coloured celebration of what looked for a bewildering moment like the dark pit of desolation at the heart of a time of liberation.


Arts Diary

VISUAL ART Bill Henson

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until December 11


Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until October 22

CABARET Trevor Ashley in Barbra and Me

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, September 17-October 15

CULTURE Parrtjima: A Festival in Light

Venues throughout Alice Springs, September 22-October 1

MULTIMEDIA Birdfoxmonster

Carriageworks, Sydney, September 21-30

CLASSICAL Basically Beethoven

James O. Fairfax Theatre, Canberra, September 18

Deakin Edge, Melbourne, September 20

City Recital Hall, Sydney, September 21

Elder Hall, Adelaide, September 24

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA Catherine Truman: No Surface Holds

Jam Factory, Adelaide, until September 17


Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, until September 17

THEATRE Godot: The Wait is Over

La Mama, Melbourne, until September 17

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2017 as "Helen’s angels".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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