The return of Tony Kushner’s eight-hour “Gay Fantasia On Nationalist Themes” to the National Theatre caused a monumental stir when it was announced, and the star casting cemented its title as 2017’s must-have ticket. A title, fans will be pleased to hear, this production also deserves. Thanks to advances in medicine (and education) over the past thirty years, the spectre of AIDS no longer looms over the gay community, but its dark legacy is still keenly felt. Through tragedy and terrifying dreams of the world beyond, this epic play captures the horror of the time.
The script demands a small cast to multi-role many different characters across eight hours (split into two parts, with two intervals each); a monumental task. But the real challenge lies in dealing with the central story arcs of two gay men contracting AIDS and being hospitalised. Happily, an exceptional cast transforms a script that could be morose and self-indulgent into a sensitive and endlessly surprising piece.
Andrew Garfield, although best known for playing Spider-Man, is perfectly cast as nervous bon vivant Prior Walter, commanding the stage with a characterisation that is both familiarly camp and strangely unsettling. Nathan Lane arguably steals the show as the (real life) deeply conservative shark lawyer Roy Cohn. Denise Gough is electric as Harper Pitt, a Mormon wife abandoned by her husband for a male lover, who grapples with intense grief. It is the standard of acting across the whole ensemble that makes this revival so impressive.
Director Marianne Elliott (War Horse, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) brings her familiar love of minimalist staging with technical wizardry. Sometimes an enormous, furnished set piece will glide smoothly out of the stage floor; other times lights and other technical equipment is manhandled and clumsily exposed. This unsettling juxtaposition serves to jar the audience into distinguishing between hallucinations and reality. It is a mammoth undertaking for cast and crew, and even the audience too. But decades later, it is still worth the effort.