Tony Kushner’s iconic play about the 1980s AIDS epidemic Angels in America is coming to Melbourne. Matthew Wade spoke with ‘Prior’ to find out what makes it such an enduring and special story.

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When actor Grant Cartwright first watched the television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s iconic play Angels in America, he wasn’t aware of the story’s social or political importance, but knew that it was special.

“It was really a surface viewing, but I knew that it meant so much to so many people,” he says.

The play follows Prior Walter, a gay man living with AIDS in the 1980s, along with the intersecting lives of various other players, though it’s so much more than that.

The story uses Prior’s situation as a platform to explore themes of life, death, and belonging in a world conflicted with Reagan-era politics, shifting social values, and a then-newly discovered disease that was predominantly killing gay men at a rapid rate.

And now, for the first time in 23 years, the full play will be staged in Melbourne with Cartwright slated to play the lead role of Prior.

He says he was interested right away, but wary of undertaking such a colossal project.

“It is a little daunting putting on this piece, because people have such an ownership of the story,” he says.

“During the AIDS outbreak I was only a baby, while there were people that were actually on the ground battling and watching people die.

“And a lot of them are still here, and they still have that memory, so I just want to be as authentic as I can.”

Cartwright adds that although the play was written to reflect a particular time fraught with political conservatism and the neglect of queer men by those in power, there are parallels that can be drawn with today, starting [but certainly not ending] with America’s current leader.

“Society and the world has gotten more fucked up in a way since then, so this play has never been more relevant than when it first came out,” he says.

“That’s also why I jumped on board – I find the older I get the more important it is to stand behind the words you say on stage. Never since Reagan has there been more aggressive, conservative politics at play.

“Here in Australia we have Pauline Hanson in the Senate, who was meant to go away in the ‘90s but not she’s back. We still don’t have gay marriage, there’s an intense fear of Islam, and then of course Bexit happened.

“Reagan was ignorant of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s but Trump has those same aggressive, conservative politics.”

For many queer roles on stage, and in film or television, straight actors are cast in them, to the dismay of LGBTI people who believe this renders the story inauthentic.

In an effort to combat this, director of the Melbourne production of Angels in America Gary Abrahams has deliberately casted predominantly queer actors to give the story extra weight and power.

Cartwright says it’s all part of making the play as authentic as possible.

“I think the most important thing is for an actor to play a role with an open heart and authenticity,” he says.

“A lot of gay actors get cast in really stereotypical roles, even though it’s not a stretch to play a nuanced, interesting gay character.

“I hope the audience coming to see our production are moved, changed, and confronted by it.

“If they are, we’ve done a really good job.”

Angels in America will be playing at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne from September 1 – 24. For more information and tickets visit: www.angelsinamerica.com.au.

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