This play is gigantic. Both in terms of action on the stage, story, and the ideas contained within. In many ways it is difficult to imagine a production that could accurately capture the scope, the sheer scale of this play.
Beginning with Part 1: Millennium Approaches, Marianne Elliot creates a world that is fast-paced, urgent, and disconnected. Rooms appear and disappear on three revolves, wherein actors run in and out, appearing in new spaces. Neon lights gleam and cut the edges of the darkness to create clear definitions of where people do and don't belong. This is a world that it is difficult to keep up with, where news and pain are revealed, fought against, and denied in favour of continuous movement. If I don't stop it won't catch me. Of the two, I find Part 1 the weaker play, mainly because it sticks to a more traditional form for the majority of the play. Elliot does a wonderful job creating engagement and anticipation, while also helping the audience to become accustomed to the more esoteric events, such as Harper's arctic adventure, ultimately preparing us for the Angel's arrival.
This cast are astounding. For me, Denise Gough (Harper) and James McArdle (Louis) are the stand outs, purely because their characters are so east to become flat and one-note. We all know the beautiful arc of Pryor (a devastating Andrew Garfield) and Roy Cohn's toxic energy (played with sheer bile by Nathan Lane) but for me it is their foils who leave the greatest opportunity for an actor to show their true technique.
The audience, I think, in part didn't know what they were there for. Which is both fantastic (what a play to encounter by accident!) but also annoying; they applauded at Lane's first entrance, and also at Garfield's. It was interesting, however, to sit among a crowd for whom this story was still unfamiliar. There were moments of humour I hadn't previously thought of, which made the moments of sadness all the richer.
Being of sound mind and not too interested in paying to spend 9 hours consecutively in a theatre, I returned the following day for Part 2: Perestroika. Our spinning world has simplified somewhat, with the walls falling away. Rooms are now signified by a neon frame, or simply a door, and perhaps a piece of furniture. The breath of the Angel is everywhere in part 2, which Elliot realizes through the use of actors who function as puppeteers to the Angel and her wings, but also manipulators of space and time. They aren't hidden; we see them creep in to move objects, witness choreographed movement of set pieces and actors through the space. This all comes together to have an effect of normalcy; somehow the world is functioning better when the angels are there and in charge. It is less confusing.
The sheer magic of Elliot's staging creates moments of beautiful theatricality. This is a production that doesn't pretend to be anything but theatre at its least naturalistic. It moves and swells physically, audibly, and emotionally to sweep the audience along in the logic of this world.
It was interesting to think about how the play worked in the space of the Neil Simon, a traditional proscenium space, when this production was conceived for the Lyttleton at NT London, which is a considerably more open space. The lighting did a lot to envelop the audience, but I feel that in the original space it was probably even more effective.