There's no doubt that when Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" first came to the stage in the early nineties, it was like little that had been seen before – both in terms of showing that people dealing with the disease weren't always heroes or activists, and with the fantastical, almost operatic use of angels and surreal confusing dreamlike sequences it put before us. There's also no doubt that this sold-out revival at the National Theatre nearly 25 years later is bursting with supreme acting talent from some of the best performers on stage right now.
Perhaps we just need to accept that the script, whilst groundbreaking then, has a better home in the memory of the past than the theatre of the present.
With this set-up then, there's no doubt that five star plaudits and life-affirming experiences will be proclaimed from most who sit through the long eight hours of the two plays (well, it's one play in two parts really) that will overshadow the aches in the posterior. And so it feels like being a pariah who has missed something to say this now feels like an exhausting, sprawling mess that lacks energy, consistency or emotion to have the expected impact and leaves you feeling dissatisfied, unmoved and disappointed.
It's 1985, when the knowledge and understanding of AIDS was low and the prejudice against those with the disease high. And in Angels, it's a time when gay men spilt into three categories; the campy, the closeted and the self-loathing. Prior Walter is the protagonist who clings on to camp affectation and semi-drag as support whilst degenerating into exhaustion and fantasies of seeing angels that profess he is a prophet – pining for boyfriend Louis who leaves him through not being able to cope with the illness. Joe Pitt, the All-American Reaganite married Mormon, trying to do "right" with his wife, whilst trying to find love (or satisfy lust) with a man. Roy Cohn, the real-life lawyer who publicly insisted his illness was liver cancer rather than AIDS as the latter was something "homosexuals have". The stories of the three intertwine like multiple ongoing episodes with little build, consistency or energy from one to the other. There are strong speeches and moving scenes, but it all starts and stops and starts again and it now feels like lots of audition speeches rather than a better sum of its parts.
The performances within these show pieces are outstanding. Andrew Garfield as Prior may be unrecognisable to fans of Spider-Man (though the range of character he is able to inhabit may be familiar to those who remember him from The Laramie Project that set him out on his current road to stardom) – whether a ball of sweat and panic or in sunglasses and frock coat all flapping hands and "Miss Thang". Denise Gough retains her position as "Queen of The Stage Victim" with her performance as Harper, the drug-addled lonely wife of closeted Joe. And Nathan Lane draws some empathy for the angry, bitter, inherently camp dislikeable Cohn.
Alone, some of the speeches are poetically moving. See any of the scenes separately and you will be watching an acting masterclass. Sit through an act and you'll start checking your watch for the interval. And sit through both plays, and you won't be alone by congratulating yourself for getting to the end – there's a ripple of relief and murmurs of "only one hour to go" at the end of the fourth interval. There's a sense that you've achieved a marathon rather than lived through an experience.
Even the massive set pieces – seven performers make up the angel; heaven is like the inside of the TARDIS; the stage filled with snow to create the Antarctic – whilst strong photographic images alone, lack any cohesion and seem designed on individual bases. The same settings are sometimes wheeled on and offstage and other times flown up from the downstage pit with little consideration for where they have been before. Points given for using the entirety of the vast Lyttleton stage for its own sake at least.
Perhaps it is just more dated than expected. Not just the messaging and the world of terrifyingly recent history that it deals with but in terms of what a theatrical event can really do today. Perhaps the audience is made up of so many with memories of why the original was so important that the power of the parts makes up for the lack of a whole for many. Perhaps ticking boxes has got in the way of making this feel as new and fresh as it could be. But perhaps we just need to accept that the script, whilst groundbreaking then, has a better home in the memory of the past than the theatre of the present. The excitement around getting a ticket and being part of what is a huge theatrical event is going nowhere – but to walk out of this with such high expectations being replaced by a desire to get to bed feels the sad but true shared emotion.