The sub-title “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” probably does this great work no favours. Not because a specifically gay anything is necessarily less relevant to everybody watching than a specifically Jewish, Irish or black anything else but because, as much as any modern work I can think of, Tony Kushner’s 1991 two-play, seven-hour epic set in Reagan’s America during the 1980s, in which lives are infected as much by politics as they are by the scourge of AIDS, is ultimately about nothing less all-embracing than the human condition.
The two humans whose condition is in immediate peril here are the HIV-positive Prior Walter, played by former Spiderman and Hacksaw Ridge Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield and Rottweiler lawyer Roy Cohn, played by Nathan Lane. Both deliver two of the year’s most vivid performances.
Garfield deploys a panoply of flamboyant gesture, every one an expression of Prior’s sexuality. It could have easily slipped into gay stereotype but for the sense that this drama queen’s natural histrionics have been profoundly deepened by genuine personal tragedy. This is especially so when he is abandoned by his high-minded, spineless Jewish boyfriend Louis (a terrific James McArdle).
Slightly less convincing is a somewhat banal Russell Tovey as Joseph, a married Mormon in denial about his sexuality; although Denise Gough as his wired, pill-popping wife is faultless.
Crucially, director Marianne Elliott clarifies a plot that vaults to such unexpected locations as Antarctica and a bleak heaven populated by angels abandoned by their Lord. Both places speak of the two holes Kushner identifies as challenging human existence: one God-shaped, the other ozone. However, even Elliott cannot prevent passages from drifting, over this work’s seven hours. Still, when that happens, Lane’s mesmerising Cohn provides the wake-up call.
Cohn was the McCarthyite lawyer hated for many reasons, not least sending his fellow Jew Ethel Rosenberg to the chair for spying, and also for trampling on gay rights even though he was secretly gay. Here he’s scarier than the ghost of Rosenberg who haunts him, searingly funny and as theatrical figures go, as defiant in the face of death (he died of Aids) as Don Giovanni.
The Kaddish said over his body by Jews who hated him is unforgettably moving, perhaps especially for Jews. It’s a moment of humanity drawn from the life-affirming spirit of the show.