By Lucy Knight
A six-hour exploration of AIDs and homosexuality in 1980s America is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a student play performed in the last week of Easter term, but directors Nikhil Vyas and Tyler Rainford certainly do not shy away from a challenge, and the absolute commitment and enthusiasm for the project from everyone involved is undeniably evident. Kushner’s Angels in America is a literary staple, not only in terms of its excellence in writing style, but also as a text which examines and reflects the queer community: it is a hugely ambitious play – or, indeed, pair of plays – to put on, particularly in a student setting such as this. Co-director Vyas admits that it took him three years of being part of DST to finally pluck up the courage – after a few pints at the Swan and Three, naturally – to decide to put on this play that had seemed such an ‘impossible dream’, but the dream has finally been realised, and such is his and Rainford’s unbounded passion for the production that I cannot help but be excited and intrigued for what is in store.
Entering the rehearsal space in Elvet Riverside felt almost like an invasion of privacy, for the cast were so immersed in the intensity of the scenes from Millennium Approaches that the whole room felt cold and sombre. If this sense was so clear just from a run-through in a classroom, I can only imagine how piercingly emotive these scenes have the potential to be when they are performed in the Assembly Rooms with full costume and technical effects. The cast are clearly talented, and have worked hard with the directors to create believable characters, and, bar a few slightly questionable American accents from some of the male actors, which undoubtedly will be perfected by the time of performance, gave exceptional portrayals, which can only continue to improve as the rehearsal period continues.
Rainford and Vyas have chosen to put on the play in a very minimalistic, Brechtian style – for, as Rainford notes, Kushner himself was very inspired by Brecht. Lighting and music will play a key role in setting the scene and the tone, but it will be up to the actors themselves to create a believable world that the audience can become immersed in. All of the cast agree that doing Kushner’s writing justice requires a great deal of stamina: all of the characters have intense emotional journeys which call for skilled, nuanced performances. As Carrie Gaunt (Harper Pitt) puts it, the play is ‘a marathon, not a sprint’, and Adam Simpson (Joe Pitt) notes that there is abundant opportunity for character development due to having ‘six hours rather than the usual two’ to create a multi-faceted representation. Jasmine Price (Hannah Pitt) explains that ‘with each of the characters in the play, you could extract their scenes and run them in a linear fashion, and that would be a little story in itself.’ Kushner’s writing, is, as Vyas comments, episodic in its style, and the cast and creatives have evidently worked hard on creating believable, raw characters, so that the intertwining of the episodes is believable and captivating.
Whilst Rainford confesses that the production is at one level a little self-indulgent, as, in his own words, his time at DST has been ‘defined by [his] relationship with Nikhil’, and this is a play that the two of them have wanted to put on together for some time, both directors also understand that Angels in America is a ‘very, very important play’ that is ‘essential to our understanding of modern homosexual and queer identity and general identity as a whole’ (Rainford). Particularly with the recent Orlando shooting, it is all the more evident that plays which depict oppression and give minority groups a voice deserve to have a place on our stages and screens, and Pitch Productions must be commended for facilitating this within Durham Student Theatre. As well as educating audiences about the AIDs crisis, and what it meant to be homosexual in America in the 1980s, Angels also offers insight as to how important it is to have a sense of self-identity. As Qasim Salam (Belize) remarks, it is the characters who have come out, that are happiest and ‘more settled’ in the play. Kushner displays the merits of being comfortable with your identity, and not necessarily a gay identity – as Andrew Shires (Prior Walter) points out, straight character, Hannah Pitt also reaps the rewards of accepting herself by the end of Perestroika.
The cast and production team of Angels in America should be applauded for committing themselves so thoroughly to such a difficult project – it certainly will not be easily, but I believe that they have the capacity to pull it off, and provide something truly outstanding.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman
Angels in America: Millenium will be performed on Thursday, 23rd of June at the Assembly Rooms at 19:30. Book your tickets here. Angels in America: Perestroika will be performed on Friday, 24th of June at the Assembly Rooms at 19:30. Book your tickets here.