Tony Kushner’s Angels In America may be the defining American play of the 20th century.
An epic and sprawling work, it takes on the AIDS crisis, and through this, expands into philosophical questions about the nature of life itself. At seven hours across two parts, it’s also one of the biggest and most ambitious plays you could attempt. Belvoir Street Theatre regular Eamon Flack knew that staging the play was a massive undertaking – six weeks into an eight-week rehearsal period, he’s realised the full scope of what he and his cast are attempting.
I ask the young director what drew him to Kushner’s play, he replies with a nervous laugh. “Everyone’s asking me this question lately!” he says. “I suppose that, at the centre of it, Angels In America is about how to survive modern times. Right now, in the middle of rehearsing it, my mind is reeling with that question of how to survive. I guess that I was drawn to it because it’s the biggest, most magnificent play that anyone has written in our time. It’s rare for a contemporary play to have the status of this one.”
The play enjoys legendary status – it is loved around the world, and was famously adapted as a HBO miniseries several years ago. I ask Flack how he accounts for the play’s tremendous appeal. “Well, the play is just incredibly imaginative,” he says, “and those sorts of full flights of imagination are always attractive.” The play’s indelible imagery also plays a part, especially the scenes of diving intervention. “An angel appears to a man dying of AIDS,” he continues. “You don’t get many opportunities to see that.”
Though Kushner’s play tackles the AIDS epidemic as seen through the experiences of people in 1980s New York, Flack is adamant that the play is about a lot more than the disease itself. “I’m 33, and I have some memories of the grim reaper ads, and of the impact of those,” he says, “but coming to the play now, the striking thing that Kushner has achieved is to write a play about so much more than AIDS. It starts with this difficult, interesting, awful plague, and then uses that as an examination of history that we’re still living.”
The HBO miniseries, which starred the likes of Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, made a poignant impression. In spite of this, Flack and his actors, including Robyn Nevin and Marcus Graham, have not allowed themselves to be influenced by the series in any way. “I feel like, when you bring a group of people together to work on a script, it’s inevitable that you’ll arrive at a different place than people have previously,” Flack says. “That in itself is interesting, but also, any attempt to put your own stamp on the script will fail.”
Flack is being quite literal when he says this. “It’s like Tony Kushner has put a curse on the script!” he says. “Any time you try to deviate from what he’s written, you end up with your head in your hands wondering why you did it. You end up having to do what he’s written. It’s like those tombs that those poor buggers opened in Egypt, and then they all died. You can’t mess with Kushner’s text – you can only respond as best you can.”
Angels In America may be about death, but staging the play has been a life-affirming experience for Flack. “It makes you draw on all those finer human qualities like patience and thoughtfulness,” he says, “but it constantly gives back. By all rights, we should be exhausted and wrecked this far in, but we’re not, because the play is just so generous and rewarding.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Angels In America is showing at Belvoir Street Theatre until July 21.