Angels in America – Dino Dimitriades and the magnificent decay of American splendid. (Theatre Review)

“The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come.”

Angels in America

Red Line Productions and Apocalypse Theatre Company

February 15 – March 16 You can grab your tickets here.

Images, Hero and Production:  Robert Catto (@robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.)

Images documentary: Clare Hawley

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Walter Benjamin

Tony Kushner undoubtedly riffs off Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus in Angels in America. Equally, ‘On the concept of History’ addresses the ‘hunchback dwarf’ in the room. That operation called ‘theology’ that informs all things ‘which everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.’ Modern thinkers fear (or relish) political correctness as the distraction that prevents a proper engagement with Das Kapital, but really it is theology. ‘That monster that informs all things,’ and nurtures Capitalism to vibrant and virulent life. As Nietzsche correctly presumed, it is not enough to declare God dead. To properly exhume him, we must replace him.

AIDS in America in the 1980’s was a good old-fashioned plague a-la-Moses and Egypt. For Tony Kushner the homosexual is the first-born son with blood on the stoop rather than the doorpost. Cleansing blood comes from death, sacrifice. Are not those who suffer through their disease somehow cleansed? Sanctified? Even the homosexual can be sanctified through death. We hear echoes of this in the Pope Francis’ declaration of abused Children as “sacrificing human beings” a kind of justification through suffering; a cleansing ritual of true life previously only expected of the disenfranchised? Abraham showed great faith when he raised his knife over Isaac. It is this thinking that allows the worst crime of the AIDS epidemic: the guilt and shame experienced by those carrying the disease.

People called AIDS a ‘gay disease’. ‘Innocent victims’ were those infected by blood transfusion. It was rumoured AIDS came ‘from Africa.’ AIDS didn’t happen to straight (white) people, and certainly not married people. It was a tragedy, but easily avoided with ‘straight’ living. AIDS finally established the missing link – not for atheists, but theists. It was Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. A ritual cleansing of the earth. Not to rid us of pollutants or nationalism (each enemies of survival and the life blood of Capitalism) but those whose sexual practise can’t be explained by determinism, religious or otherwise. Condoms were widely condemned – they prevented the birth of a child, unless you were engaging in unlawful sex, which indicated punishment was sent from God and a condom interfered with God’s law. In a terrific speech, delivered as only an American can by Timothy Wardell (who is a spectacular Louis Ironson in this production) a desperate cry for the sanctity and purification from Europe comes (literally from the stoop) via childish refusal and the immaturity of America is laid bare in all its nonsense and reverse glory. We see, with great clarity, the desperation of each American counter culture to reveal its roots outside nationalist borders – especially The Jews – those great (anti) theists. “America is great; I am not American,” comes the cry.

Here in Sydney, in 2019, The Apocalypse Theatre company, under the direction of Dino Dimitriades Angels in America finds a stunning fresh voice. Dino Dimitriades calls forth remarkable performances firmly establishing himself as one of the truly great modern-day Australian directors. Impossible to ignore is the connection each actor developed with character, revealed in succinct yet warmly connective text delivery. The two plays, back to back are enthralling and engaging confuting concerns around the productions length. Just as the desire to see the end is quelled, so the production lives inside for days and weeks as it’s resonating theories come to life in its aftermath.

A beautifully pared down set design by Jeremy Allen allows for Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design (he is assisted here by Ryan McDonald) to move forward. The modalities work to underline and enhance dialogue and text, forging drama from the spirit of the play’s themes rather than use a glamorous distraction. Together with Ben Pierpoint’s composition and sound design and Paige Walker’s dialect instruction (the accents and inflections are entirely cohesive) the visual and auditory treat that is Angels in America finds its power in a subtle and intimate space. Maya Keys true to period yet equally subtle costuming and the clever work of makeup artists Annabel Cameron, Ciara McCarthy, Melinda Naylor and Eilidh Strachan work properly within theatre boundaries to create intimacy with the witness rather than alienate by adhering to rules suited to a larger theatre space. Multiple behind the scenes arrangements are handled with invisible efficiency by assistant director Daniel Cottier, Stage manager Jack Powell, Deputy stage manager Hannah Crane, company manager Oliver Harris, Assistant stage manager Christopher Starnawski and associate producer Jens Radda.

As is emerging the more we watch his marvellous productions, the true powerhouse of Dino Dimitriadis direction is performances, and his Angels in America reinforces this strength yet again. Joseph Althouse is outstanding as Belize (the plays true angel) in a performance laced with grace, strength and dignity that takes full advantage of an exquisitely written text. A very young, and relatively new performer (to the Sydney stages) his star quality shines through in Angels in America and bodes well for a promising future. Timothy Wardell returns to the Australian independent stage as Louis Ironson in a performance that again, takes full advantage of a brilliantly written text. It through Timothy Wardell’s performance as Louis Ironson that we visit a back and forward through time aesthetic that makes this current production so powerful in the age of Donald Trump and start to see the AIDS crises as the prophetic start to the countries downward spiral, rather than 9/11 as is so typically reported. The exquisite Catherine Davies is outstanding as Harper Pitt, playing down the roles fashionable 80’s post 1950’s crazed housewife in favour of a hipster Mormon making some sort of a grasp for normal. Confused rather than powerless, she makes a strong case for a more modern Harper whose great tragedy is losing the love of her life. Her counter, Gus Murray as the equally tragic Joe Pitt is appropriately handsome, reserved and well-cast in his slow build to the horror of ideologies absolute refusal of the body.

This production of Angels in America includes yet another stand-out performance from Maggie Dence as the angel inflicting her magnificent ecstasy of Saint Teresa upon everyone who crosses her path. Consistent with the production Maggie Dence works with subtlety and according to biblical accuracy with the absence of wings. This elegant adjustment underlined by her enigmatic presence gives this Angel of America a beauty that invokes a sense of decay all the more potent for the Trump era. She shares some of the play’s greatest moments with Ben Gerrard whose powerhouse performance as Prior Walter is the bedrock of the production. Ben Gerrard uses a played down irony laced in the tragic to connect with the audience. It is through his pathos and his extraordinary beauty that we are reminded of all the AIDS crises stole from us. This is a beautiful performance that reveals the heart of Tony Kushner’s writing prowess. Equally Jude Gibson as Harper Pitt (sublime in her Saint Teresa moment) is a great find for Sydney audiences, and a true pleasure to watch on the stage. She manages to have us fall in love with someone rather unpleasant, precisely as the text would have it. Ashley Lyons as the despicable Roy Cohn haunted by Jude Gibson as Ethel Rosenberg brings Tony Kushner’s moral trajectory full circle as we watch one of history’s monsters battle for his narrative. Ashley Lyons is remarkable as Roy Cohn, so grotesque it becomes impossible to believe he could be real, yet so human he has to be.

It is difficult at this stage to secure tickets to this production of Angels in America, but if you can, you must. It’s a standout production for Red Line at the Old Fitz, a fitting next best for Apocalypse Theatre Company and an exciting step forward in the watchable career of Dino Dimitriades. Deeply moving and enormously powerful Angels in America consistently is, but this particular incarnation, with an eye to a future as well as a past, places this important text as essential in the proper analysis of American culture and capitalisms influence on the way we see the world. Highly Recommended.