ANGELS IN AMERICA - Sarah Dean
"Okay," says my university tutor, "we are going to go round the room and I want everyone to finish the sentence 'safe sex is...'. Just say that first thing that comes into your head and we'll write them up on the board. I'll start. Safe sex is...consensual sex."
"Safe sex is.. fun sex!" grins the girl sitting to his left. He scrawls it on the board. "Safe sex is sexy sex!" says the next person.
"Yes! Great!" he replies. "Keep going. Sarah, your turn, go!"
“Erm...Safe sex is...no sex?" I offer positively. Some of the group laughs.
“Oh dear,” says the tutor. He doesn't write my suggestion down.
This exchange took place at an undergrad Contemporary Theater tutorial just weeks into my first semester at university. We were studying Tony Kushner's play Angels in America, a sweeping epic about Reagan's America in the face of the AIDS epidemic. The seven hour, two part show had opened at London's National Theater nine months earlier, having been picked up by the National following some workshop performances in San Francisco. It had been a huge hit and had transferred to Broadway just a few weeks before my classmates and I arrived at university.
My "safe sex is no sex" answer wasn't due to some kind of abstinence teaching or a super strict Christian upbringing. My parents and my church were very liberal, however the mandatory sex education lecture at my high school in the rural east of England can only be described as scaremongering.
"Get pregnant, girls and your life is ruined. Get HIV, boys, and you'll be dead by twenty.”
Our elderly deputy head teacher warned us helpfully, adding, “Oh and don’t share a toothbrush, sharing a toothbrush is a very risky thing to do."
It is easy to see how I formed my logical conclusion that sticking with the whole virginity thing that the Bible is so keen on might be the safest option in this terrifying world, where even lax dental hygiene can kill you!
“This is an important play, a theatrical masterpiece, as significant as Death of a Salesman or Oh What a Lovely War,” our tutor told us as he handed out a list of the play’s themes: right wing politics and corruption, the ozone layer; the experience of the gay man— closeted and out, the personal and societal impact of the AIDS epidemic; faith and sexuality. This was theater at its most contemporary and my secret shame was I just didn't get it!
Other students declared Angels in America was their favorite play of all time, while I silently fretted over why I couldn't see its genius. Maybe it’s because I was a latent homophobe? After all the sex scenes made me blush. Or maybe it was because the character I identified with most was Joe Pitt, a closeted gay man struggling with his faith as his worldview changes, but after the mortifying "safe sex, no sex" comment I wasn't going to admit that to my fellow students and be singled out as "that religious girl" again.
The show's subtitle is "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." I was a straight, non- American woman, who knew very little about American history and politics. For example I didn't know that a character in the play, the deeply sinister lawyer Roy Cohn was actually a real person, a fact which is fairly vital to the plot. And the plot is nuts! Angels crash through bedroom ceilings, characters ascend into heaven, which is described in the stage directions as “San Francisco post the Great Quake.” The origins of the Mormon religion are commented on by a gay man who thinks he is a prophet and a mentally ill woman who has just gnawed through a tree trunk like a beaver!
During the time we studied Angels in America, we didn't actually see it on stage! Ironically we studied one of the most theatrical contemporary plays, just by reading the text. And when your only point of reference for stagecraft is a youth theater production of Godspell, it is no surprise that I struggled to comprehend the stage directions: "The Angel is related to humans but isn't human...while she should be comprehensible to the audience, she should also be terribly unfamiliar." Huh?
This year Angels in America is back at the National Theater. With a cast including Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane it is one of this summer's hottest shows. I booked tickets mainly due to "Event Theater" FOMO (I now work in the theater) but also because in I still hadn't seen it on stage.
In the current climate the play's themes—global warming, the influence of the religious right, freedom of expression—are as relevant now as when the show was written, perhaps even more so. Kushner's notes on the current production state: "I've always written perched on a knife edge of terror and hope. Today the edge is sharper than it has ever been." It was chilling to read in the press notes for the show that the real Roy Cohn was a mentor to the young Donald Trump!
A quarter of a century after I first wrestled with these angels, I can now wholeheartedly recommend this show to you, all 8 hours of it. (And you can see it this summer at your local movie theater in the US, Canada, and numerous other theaters worldwide via NT Live. Details below.) This time around, older, wiser, more engaged with global politics, less hung up on sexuality and faith, I loved it. The production is glorious and epic. Angels do burst through ceilings in front of your eyes and heaven does look like a quake-wrecked San Francisco. Plus, it turns out that I was so absorbed with trying to understand the text the first time round that I missed the fact that it's very funny!
I realize now that I can't have been the only person in that drama studio 25 years ago who found Angels in America challenging. I do continue to wonder why it didn't strike my university tutor that perhaps not every 18 year old would be ready or able to discuss sex, politics, and religion just three weeks after leaving home! But perhaps that isn't surprising as he also hadn't spotted that plays are written to be performed rather than read.
Encore screenings of the National Theatre revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America NT Live screenings at movie theaters worldwide are listed here; and if you can't get to one of those, the Mike Nichols screen adaptation is quite something.