Kiaya Phillips in conversation with Andrew Raynes (director) and Will Shackleton (who plays Louis) of Happier Year Productions’ version of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play, Angels in America: Part One, Milennium Approaches.
Kiaya: For people who have not heard of this play, can you summarize what it is about?
Andrew Raynes (Director): Angels in America is an ensemble drama set in America in the 1980s. It’s mostly in New York and it examines the political state of America, primarily in terms of the rise of conservatism and the AIDS crisis. It contextualises them in a Jewish mystical belief in a millennium and the Mormon belief in a second coming. The play puts it in a doomsday context so they are looking towards the millennium as the end of the world and it considers all of the factors in American politics and society at the time.
Will Shackelton (Louis): More broadly it’s about two couples, a straight Mormon couple where the wife is struggling with a valium addiction and the husband is having issues with his relationship; and a gay couple, one of whom gets diagnosed with AIDS. All four of their lives and stories blend, cross over, intertwine as they come to terms with their new problems and struggles in their relationships.
Kiaya: Why did you pick it?
A: I picked it because it’s a play I have liked for years, but it also felt relevant too and I wanted to do it this year for a variety of reasons. I think the things it discusses in terms of the rise of conservatism and political polarization feel very relevant now. It also discusses queer liberation and intersectional queer identity in a way that I think is getting lost in contemporary discourse around queer identity. I think we’re in the age of identity politics, and one of the ways in which you can understand Angels is by promoting empathy and understanding all groups of people. So, even though it’s an ensemble piece with lots of different people, everyone in the play has something in common. It teaches a really important lesson about understanding people around you, finding points of connection. The idea that everyone is suffering, no one is actually better than anyone else on a spiritual level, that felt really important to me, but also I wanted to do it this year as opposed to any other because the state of oxford drama was looking really good. I thought we would get a good cast for it.
Kiaya: When did you start working on it?
A: We started thinking about doing it in February when you have to put in bid for the playhouse, then we looked at previous work and decided on this play. We got our crew together and started doing auditions (which were all fantastic). It’s been a real pleasure to work on.
W: As an actor I chose to do it because all of the characters are incredibly challenging, there are six big roles, and they are all more hard than each other every time you look at the play. There’s no clear moral good and bad, every character is cast in shades of gray. It’s not didactic – as Andrew said – and there is no real protagonist in this part (Part One). It puts this situation and asks the audience to try and empathize with everyone and come away with their own wider thoughts.
Kiaya: Are you doing anything interesting with set, lighting and tech?
A: In terms of lighting, we just had our paper tech yesterday so it’s all very fresh, but Lucas, our lighting designer, is going to do some interesting things with shape and color and the way he is throwing abstract patterns around. Our set is based on the set designs of Derek Jarman who was a new queer cinema director, working on film and set in the 70s and 80s. It is inspired by him because we wanted to bring in a bit of British queer history into this play that is mainly about American queer history. Its abstract, its representative, its multifunctional. Hopefully all of the tech will interact to create a coherent semi abstract, semi-naturalistic landscape.
Kiaya: What type of atmosphere are you trying to create?
A: Various throughout the play, dependent on what the scene demands. We have some very small and intimate scenes and we have huge expansive scenes.
W: I think the overall effect is going to be awesome, in the literal sense. Grand scale ideas. The building and the mythic and fantastical elements are all larger than life.
A: One element of tech I am really excited about is that we have original music composed for us by Maddy who is doing a music masters here.
Kiaya: Are you taking inspiration from the famous National Theatre version or not? Is It more modern, or are you keeping it with the time?
A: While angels in America has a rich performance history this production I feel is very much ours: every single element of the production has grown organically, every element of acting and characterisation we have devised in rehearsals. We are making everything our own, the way that we want it to be. If people wanted to watch the National Theatre version they could go and do that. I think if you’re doing a play then it’s no good copying an old one. Partly because I think it’s important to make this newer and more relevant as the themes it discusses, particularly the AIDS crisis, are things that occupy such little space in our cultural memory. So I wanted to make people consider their connections with lost generations.
Kiaya: As a director and actor what were some challenging choices you had to make, these themes are rather poignant and perhaps hard to show. Was there a moment that challenged you? Did you have a set vision going in?
W: I have a unique challenge in the play in that my character Louis is emotionally unable to deal very much at all, and will begin to break down crying and needing the support from everyone around him the second things don’t go the way he envisioned. There are lots of scenes that are very emotionally charged. All of my scenes I do with only one other actor so it’s been really challenging and fun getting to do really tight detailed work where I try to connect with the other actor and try to make it flow as organically as possible. Of course because all the scenes are emotionally charged it’s been nice that the second the scene is over we all start laughing, we really made that divide clear. It’s also an intense play, the script asks the actors to do a lot with their bodies and put themselves in vulnerable positions. Navigating through those in a way that has been comfortable and still able to hide those emotional beats has been a fun process to go through.
A: All of the acting is very fresh and natural. It’s new every time I watch it. It’s better every time I watch it.
W: I’ve also had to learn how to play the viennese waltz! Me and Danny fell over each other to start with but now it’s looking quite beautiful. It brings a tear to my eye doing it.
A: Highlight of the show! You mentioned that there are difficult themes and distressing things happening. But it’s not like people are not dealing with that already. Certainly me and a lot of other people working on the show are dealing, in their day to day lives, with the things that come up in the script. There is a coming out scene that we ended up rehearsing the day after I came out to my family.
Kiaya: Does that feel cathartic?
A: It feels very cathartic. Rather than going to rehearsals and dreading it, we turn up and we process and deal with these difficult things that are happening around us all the time.
W: Although it’s an emotionally charged show, there is also a lot of light and humour. One of the ways the characters process these things is by laughing and enjoying and playing with one another.
A: There is a lot of light and hope in this play.
W: It’s not going to be a whole show of crying and sobbing —
A: — there will be a bit of that.
W: There is a lot of crying and sobbing. (But there is a very good hot dog sausage joke to look out for!)
Kiaya: In a sentence, why do you want people to come and see your show?
W: I’ll give you nine reasons: Danny, Grace, Aravind, Manny, Essence, Nic, Vicky, Maya, Phoenix —
A: — and I’ll give you the tenth reason, Will.
W: All nine of my costars are putting in immense performances. They will have you captivated in the destruction from the very first minute to the very end of the show.
A: I don’t think I can say it better.
Kiaya: Finally, what’s the best quote from the show?
Andrew and Will: “The great work begins!”
Angels in America: Part One, Milennium Approaches is showing at the Oxford Playhouse from the 1st to 4th November. 7:30pm every evening except an 8pm Friday show, with matinees at 2:30pm.