(Ryan Gilbey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/5; Photo: The Guardian.)

‘You couldn’t phone it in’ … Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in the National Theatre’s 2017 revival of Angels in America. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

The pandemic inspired many works of art but two furious, turbulent plays written at its onset still tower over the rest. As both return, we explore their enduring power

On 3 July 1981, a single-column item appeared on page 20 of the New York Times under the headline: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” In the four decades since, the cultural response to Aids has spanned every art form. It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s Channel 4 series, is only the most recent entry on a very long list. But even now, after all those works, the conversation about Aids is still dominated by two American plays that arrived in the early days of that pandemic.

In The Normal Heart, which opened off-Broadway in April 1985, playwright and activist Larry Kramer dramatised his own struggle to force politicians, doctors and the gay community to confront a disease many were treating with scepticism or indifference. In front of a set on which the rising fatalities and the names of the dead were scrawled and updated with each performance, Kramer’s crusading onstage alter-ego Ned Weeks ranted, raged and fell desperately in love. He was played by Brad Davis, the star of Midnight Express and Querelle, who died of Aids six years later.

Fantastical … Nancy Crane and Stephen Dillane in Angels In America at the NT in 1993. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Angels in America adopts a more expansive, fantastical approach. Tony Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour epic, which was commissioned in the late 1980s and opened in its entirety on Broadway in 1993, mixes fictional characters with real-life figures such as Roy Cohn, the ruthless lawyer who died of Aids, and Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he sent to the electric chair for spying. The play’s settings range from Central Park cruising grounds to Antarctica and the afterlife. In place of Kramer’s rawness and austerity is spectacle: Marianne Elliott’s 2017 revival at the National Theatre in London featured neon, puppetry, roaring flames, and Andrew Garfield as the dying New Yorker visited by an angel crashing through his ceiling.

Neither play looks likely to fall from favour. Angels in America is currently streaming on NT at Home, while The Normal Heart – which reached Broadway in 2011 and was adapted for TV in 2014 with Mark Ruffalo – is to be staged at the National, directed by Dominic Cooke.

Back in 1985, however, when the actor DW Moffett was cast as Ned’s lover, the material was seen by some as taboo. “A gay friend told me, ‘Don’t you fucking go near Larry Kramer, that guy is toxic!’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘But it’s all about Aids.’ He said, ‘I know what it’s about! How we can’t fuck one another any more, and all that puritan bullshit.’ Even in New York, people were not ready to digest either the rage or the amount of doomsday information Larry was downloading on to American society.”

Kramer had decried gay promiscuity in the 1970s on moral grounds. Although his argument acquired, with Aids, an existential imperative, those who were enjoying hard-won freedoms were in no mood to curb their desires. “It’s Cassandra, isn’t it?” says Dominic Cooke. “He knows what’s coming and he’s not being listened to. Larry was saying that promiscuity is a choice, but it shouldn’t be the destination. The destination is that we should feel worthy of love.”

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