Many plays which have come out in the past fifty years have been wrongly and thoughtlessly dubbed ‘modern classics’. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is far from being one of them. An unreservedly honest and intimate account of the 1980’s AIDS epidemic in the United States, it won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. Last week, Happier Year Productions’ student performance of Millennium Approaches (the first of the play’s two parts) was staged in the Oxford Playhouse, in what was described by one of the cast members as ‘a night of heartbreak, dark comedy, [and] revelations.’

Image credit: Alice Chakraborty

As I took my seat at the Playhouse with a few minutes to go before the advertised showtime, people were still filtering into the theatre. A general sense of anticipation was echoed in the indistinct chatter that suffused through the space. The curtain went up suddenly, without even the preliminary warning of dimming lights, therefore plunging the audience into the world of play, immersing them in its raw intensity from the outset. The immediacy of this imposed transition from real-world to the narrative of the play echoes the aims expressed in director Andrew Raynes’ note in the programme, namely to make the audience reflect on how the play is not simply a reflection of hardships that existed in the 1980’s, but carries a tragic relevance in our day. In particular, Raynes drew a parallel between the power of both the COVID-19 pandemic and of the AIDS epidemic to ‘impact … the most underprivileged and vulnerable members of society.’

As well as the play’s cast, the vast majority of its crew was made up of Oxford students. Across the board, there was great cohesion between the different design elements, with an overall sense of abstracted indeterminacy being created. The set was made up of tall, grey, and foreboding obelisk-like structures, some shaped like triangles and some like rectangles, which loomed over the events unfolding onstage in an ominous manner, suggesting a dark futility about the character’s actions. The play’s scene transitions, as well as some of the scenes themselves, were underscored by a live orchestra playing uncertain, fragmented, and frequently dissonant musical phrases, which trailed away moments after starting, amplifying the many senses in which the characters’ worlds were breaking down before their eyes. The breakdown of Louis and Prior’s relationship when Prior learns he has AIDS; Harper’s manic instability and the crisis she undergoes when discovering that her husband Joe is gay; conservative lawyer Roy Cohn’s vehement refusal to acknowledge his AIDS or his own homosexuality; all of these found themselves reflected in the music’s hesitant and eerie character.

The play’s staging also supported this idea of breakdown, with split stage frequently being used. This allowed the audience to watch the different characters’ distinct but intertwined frustrations being played out concurrently. A scene in the first act, in which Joe and Harper discuss relocating to Washington on one side of the stage, and Joe talks to his Rabbi in veiled terms to try to seek clarity following Prior’s AIDS diagnosis, was exemplary of this. Whilst part of the scene’s genius comes from Kushner’s dialogue, a great deal of work was needed on the actors’ part in order to keep both sides of the stage alive even when the audience’s attention was focused just on one. It was thanks to a great understanding of their characters that the actors were able to maintain the scene’s momentum through their facial expressions and body language even when they weren’t speaking; this was especially true of the dynamic between Harper (Grace Gordon) and Joe (Aravind Ravi), who created a sense of tired conjugal desperation in their arguments that reflected not only excellent chemistry but also a profound understanding of the text.

Image credit: Alice Chakraborty

The same was true of the rest of the cast. The raw and charged intimacy between Louis (Will Shackleton) and Prior (Daniel McNamee), as well as the unhinged temper of Roy Cohn (Immanuel Smith) particularly stood out as representative of the play’s fantastic talent in acting. More technically speaking, the American accents were very well done – something which isn’t always a given even in professional productions. Another clear standout was the exchange between Louis and Belize (Essence Lotus), in which Louis’ rambly, if not confused, comments on democracy and race in America were assuredly dismissed by Belize in a scene which easily garnered the most laughs of the night.

If there’s one thing that I think could have been improved in the production of Angels in America, it’s that at times it felt like the cast could have upped the intensity. With the copious amount of shouting that makes up this play, it’s possible that the actors were saving their voices for its final night – and the production was very far from tame. But there were moments when it felt like the play could be elevated by bolder, more fearlessly unhinged dramatic choices. The rabbi’s monologue at the beginning, though delivered with an impressive and believable accent, could have been even better with some more vocal inflections or more expressive body language. More could have been made at times of Harper’s sudden changes in mood, and Roy Cohn’s icy rage, for example in the scene with his doctor, could have afforded to be even more unrestrained.

If the play might have benefitted from some more intensity at some moments, this could not be said of its ending. Bright lighting and loud, overpowering sound were used during Prior’s final hallucination / angelic visitation, creating a fiercely energetic atmosphere which ended the play with a bang. The representation of the angel, white and gigantic, floating above the stage, also contributed to this powerful and otherworldly sense. The play crescendoed to a climax, then ended as suddenly as it began, thrusting the audience back into the real world forcefully and unapologetically. The overall impression that it left was tremendously positive, and Happier Year Productions have much to be proud of with this audacious staging of a timeless classic.