THEATRE / A place where love and justice meet: Paul Taylor on the play of life and death in Tony Kushner's Aids epic, Angels in America, Part 2

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's hard to imagine a man with a cv more calculated to repel other gays than Roy Cohn, the homophobic homosexual lawyer, corrupt power-broker and sometime McCarthy sidekick who died of Aids in 1986. Suppose, then, that you are a black gay male nurse given, by chance, the dubious privilege of ministering to him during his final ordeal. Cohn, you find, is incorrigible in the face of suffering. He hurls abuse at you and exults over his private stash of the drug AZT. Shameless in confrontations with the supernatural, too, he tricks the vengeful ghost of an erstwhile victim into a moment of unguarded motherly pity, which he then jeeringly mocks. What rights has a man who scorns all obligations to the truth? How could anyone pray Kaddish over the body of such a monster.

The difficulty of forgiveness, defined here as the place where love and justice meet, is one of the topics that animate Perestroika, the splendid second part of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's 'Gay Fantasia on National Themes'. Now unveiled in the disciplined dazzle of Declan Donnellan's superb Cottesloe production, the new work runs in rep with a recast revival of Millennium Approaches, whose interwoven stories of Mormons, New York gays and Reaganite right-wingers it resumes directly like the next instalment of some vast, baroque soap opera.

Part 1 broke off with a couple of abandonments and a thunderous angelic visitation. Joe, a repressed homosexual and Cohn's Mormon protege, left Harper, his unhappy, valium-popping wife, while Aids-sufferer Prior (Stephen Dillane) was deserted by his lover, Louis (Jason Isaacs), and then greeted as a prophet by the angel who crashed through his bedroom wall. In Part 2, the angel discloses a desertion of more epic proportions. God, she reveals, abandoned the world on 18 April 1906 and will only resume his responsibilities if human beings can be persuaded to stop moving and changing and striving. Prior has been chosen to spread the new gospel of stasis.

A man living with Aids might be considered tragic; a man living with Aids and with periodic epiphanies from a camp Angel (Nancy Crane) who wouldn't look out of place in a Bette Midler show, must be considered tragi- comic. The play is, in part, the record of how this man, who thinks of himself as a brittle queen, acquires the strength to reject the Angel's advice as a false temptation. To choose life rather than religious acquiescence is no easy step for someone whose life is often agony. This fact, plus the constant mischievous deflations in the play's tone, ensures that Prior's refusenik trip to heaven isn't marred by any sense of phoney uplift.

The parallel plots, the comic interfusions of fact and fantasy, and those distinctively Kushneresque episodes where people wander in and out of each other's dreams, are relayed here with masterly clarity. If uneven, the piece has a wonderful, restless energy in its droll refusal to settle for neat climaxes (even after death, Cohn bobs back through a trap offering to represent that ultimate right- wing felon, God). Straightforwardly inspirational, the last scene seems to depart from this pattern. I shouldn't think, though, that this rules out a Part 3.

In rep at National Theatre (071-928 2252)