Angels in America is being talked about as the theatrical event of the year, and judging by this extract from an article in The Telegraph on 2nd March focussing on Andrew Garfield's performance as Prior Walter, it appears it is going to be just that.
Star casting in theatre can be a double-edged sword. For all the excitement generated from putting a world-renowned celebrity on stage, it’s easy to feel that the suitability of that particular actor in this particular role has been an afterthought.
Miscasting can leave film stars looking especially exposed: sometimes, otherwise decent productions find themselves stuck with famous-but-wrong leads, where the commercial risk of widening the net would have paid off better in the long run.
In the case of Andrew Garfield, who has returned to the London stage in Marianne Elliott’s scorching National Theatre revival of Angels in America, you can just set all those worries aside. He’s an honest-to-God revelation. As Prior Walter, the suffering Aids martyr who you might call the primary protagonist of Tony Kushner’s epic, eight-hour ensemble masterwork, he transforms himself from the inside out, justifying a full decade of sometimes wayward hype and acting as if his life depended on it.
The character is queeny, self-dramatising, embittered and in agony. By the end of his ordeal, at the fag-end of Reagan’s inhospitable 1980s in New York City, you come to feel that Garfield has scraped out every inch of Prior’s soul and delivered it to the audience in raw, bleeding fragments. Everyone in this cast – Denise Gough, Russell Tovey, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, a tremendous James McArdle, a beautiful Nathan Stewart-Jarrett – is working at the top end of collective expectations. But no one perhaps exceeds them as transcendently as Garfield.
He is also screamingly funny, rarely missing Kushner’s many, many opportunities to bring the house down. Seldom has a death sentence – Prior’s isn’t the only one in this play – been the cue for so many dazzling stand-up routines, such excoriating cadenzas of gallows humour. The power of Kushner’s text is both a gift and an almighty burden, really – for if Prior, on stage, is not both impossibly funny and heart-wrenching almost constantly, the actor has simply failed.
The magic of his performance in Angels in America, which has reconfirmed every inkling of his talent and sent my admiration soaring, is that he has worked so, so hard to understand Prior – not just to embody him – and then brilliantly let rip, flinging the sense of effort away.
His petulant mannerisms, hair-flicks, squeals of outrage could have seemed nightmarishly mannered if it felt like these externals had flooded his mind first. I’m sure there have been some terrible Prior Walters in past productions, camping up a storm with superficial verve. But Garfield gets him, down to the bone.
His anguish and drama, even his comedy, seem to bubble up from the same well, not to be switches of style register he merely flips between. The role could wind up defining him forever – at least for those not that fussed about the Marvelverse. And when he reaches closing night, with the rest of that impeccable cast, he’ll get standing ovations almost as long and emotional as the play.