Angels in America

The play that gave the stage a new direction
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In 1988, Max Stafford-Clark - then Artistic Director of the Royal Court - recorded, in a soon-to-be-published rehearsal diary, his dismay at recent shifts of taste. "London's current tide in theatrical chic," he wrote, "is swinging towards groups such as Theatre de Complicite (enormously skilled absurdism) and to Cheek By Jowl (cheeky versions of the classics) ... Plays that take on public issues may no longer carry the public with them."

Would intelligent audiences increasingly settle for "effects without causes" (to adapt Wagner's quip against Meyerbeer)? With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how some of the most soaringly imaginative stagework of the subsequent years exuberantly swept aside the barriers between issue- driven theatre and theatre that revels in its own rampant theatricality. Not least that produced by the creative teams of Cheek By Jowl, Complicite, Gloria and DV8.

Take what, on any reckoning, must be judged a landmark play of the Nineties. Tackling the Aids crisis, fundamentalism, religious intolerance, corruption in high places, perestroika as both fact and metaphor, and the need for change in a US that is "terminal, mean and crazy", Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1991-3) can scarcely be accused of tiptoeing past the great subjects of the day. But to describe the play thus makes it sound like a collaboration between Arthur Miller and Larry Kramer, whereas Kushner's vast, cosmic soap opera (with its campily equivocal Angel who could have stepped out of a Bette Midler concert, and its epic trip up to a literally god-forsaken heaven) just as often resembles a bracing collision between Dante, say, and Divine.

The Royal Court, it's rumoured, turned the play down. Richard Eyre, at the National, demonstrated his acumen as this period's greatest theatrical producer, by snapping it up and by realising that the heady interaction between its moral seriousness and its mockingly baroque, genre-switching sensibility might best be served not by a new-writing specialist but (ironically enough) by Cheek By Jowl's Declan Donnellan, a director deprecated above for bringing impudent camp to the classic repertoire.

Exemplified by both the aesthetics and the reception of Angels, the last decade has seen a remarkable overturning of the received wisdom about gay drama and the mainstream. The traditional test for broad appeal has always been: would the play work as well if you replaced the homosexual characters with straight ones? To judge from the success of, say, Kevin Elyot's Aids-haunted tragi-comedy My Night with Reg, which transferred from the Court to the West End, the test has changed to: how can distinctively gay experience deepen our understanding of universal problems and emotions? In this case: loss, betrayal, grieving, and the pained secrecies and inequalities that must exist between a "widow" and the deceased's long-standing clandestine "mistress" (the very awkwardness of those terms, when applied to same- sex relationships, indicating how the difficulties are intensified). From requiring reversibility of sexual preference in a gay play, we had reached the point where a straight female critic, reviewing Angels in America, could wonder "whether gay writers are the only ones who can write about love these days".

Even more daring than Kushner in his re-invention of theatrical language was Robert Lepage, whose vast multi-dimensional stage-poems - from The Dragon's Trilogy (1985-91) to The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994- 96) - have been such a prodigious feature of the past decade. Who could forget those grand pianos, representing long-estranged continents, that came together like pieces of a jigsaw in Tectonic Plates? Or the moment, in Seven Streams, when a looking-glass gave back to a middle-aged woman the reflection of herself as a girl in a concentration camp which was itself depicted as an infinitely receding perspective of mirrored images? The trouble, for me, is the over-malleable grandiosity of Lepage's themes. The closer his shows try to push towards ultimate profundities, the nearer they get to a total solipsistic vacuousness.

It would be wrong to imply that all the running these last 10 years has been made by gay innovators. Some old heterosexual hands produced their finest work to date - in particular, David Hare whose Church of England play, Racing Demon (1990), will prove an enduring classic for the power and generosity with which it dramatises the painful collision between traditional liberal tolerance and evangelical fanaticism, the individual and the institution. David Edgar's Pentecost (1994) imagined the discovery of a Giotto-anticipating 12th-century fresco in some Balkan Hicksville and used this situation as the vantage point for an extraordinarily acute and wide-ranging look at the ironies and agonies, competing interests and confused value systems of post-Communist Eastern Europe.

In the last two or three years, though, a new wave of playwrights has begun to emerge. Barely old enough to have read the Independent when it was first launched, this is a generation which has known only a Conservative government and which feels disinherited and powerless. Apart from Sarah Kane, whose Blasted caused Bosnia to burst, with sensational horror, into a Leeds hotel room, these twentysomething dramatists don't seem to brandish much of a political agenda.

Features of the urban landscape which would have had earlier Royal Court writers frothing with outrage, they scrutinise with an unindignant wit and a sharp eye for the quirks and contradictions. Characters who would once have been presented as straightforward victims are shown as being complicit in their oppression. The protagonists peer with a kind of existential puzzlement at their own affectless, morally disconnected behaviour. These elements were pushed to a new extreme just this last week in Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking. It was directed by the ever Zeitgeist-sensitive Max Stafford-Clark