Where 'Angels' dares to tread

Emma Thompson, as an angel, appears to Al Pacino (heartless Republican lawyer Roy Cohn, who is dying of AIDS).

Emma Thompson, as an angel, appears to Al Pacino (heartless Republican lawyer Roy Cohn, who is dying of AIDS).

 

Believe the hype: Tony Kushner's 'Angels in America' is about much more than chronicling the effect of AIDS in the US, writes Ian Kilroy

In the US, the hype started months before the screening. A flutter of angel-wings was heard in Times Square - and when New Yorkers looked up, there she was: a massive illuminated angel . . .

With billboards and TV trailers, the television adaptation of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's compelling early 1990s "fantasia for the stage", had been flagged in the US as a major cultural event for some time.

This epic piece of television was broadcast across the US in late December, in two three-hour slots. Uninterrupted by advertising, it was crowned by TV critics from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and spoken of reverently in Manhattan apartments. Now it's spreading its wings and taking flight across the Atlantic, reaching Channel 4 next weekend.

What's unusual about Angels in America is that its breadth and scope are more typical of cinema than the smaller, constraining television screen. The funding that US network HBO poured into Angels is evident right from the opening credit sequence: a cloud-couched angel's view of flight across America, from the Golden Gate Bridge, over the Mormon city of Salt Lake and the St Louis Arch, to Central Park, with the angel-topped Bethesda fountain at its heart. As for the next six hours, a poetic and fantastical sweep carries you along, with only the rarest cringe-inducing scene.

Anyone familiar with Kushner's original Pulitzer and Tony award-winning stage plays - Millennium Approaches and Perestroika (which together make up Angels in America) - might have feared that, a decade on, they'd have aged. This is only partly true.

The work's concern with millennial panic, the Reagan era and the ill-informed dread of an AIDS epidemic leave the text open to the risk of being outdated, but in the main, the new Angels feels contemporary, its political concerns particularly relevant with a Reaganite, neo-conservative in the White House.

The recent advances made by the gay rights movement in the US were only at fledgling stage in the mid-1980s, when Angels is set. But things have not changed so radically on that front as to make the drama relevant to that earlier era only.

What never changes is the complexity of human relationships, and it is these relationships that lie at the heart of Kushner's drama - inextricably linked though they are to their political contexts. Prior Walter (newcomer Justin Kirk) is left by his lover, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), when he learns that Walter has AIDS. As Walter's condition worsens, Ironson starts a new relationship with repressed homosexual and republican Mormon Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson). The problem is that Pitt is married and "straight".

As Pitt lives in denial, his wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), gradually realises he is gay and retreats further into a drug-induced fantasy world - to escape the depressing reality of her failed marriage.

In the screenplay, as in the stage play, Kushner employs the same fantastical, hallucinogenic magic-realism that so marked the original work - this time, however, special effects and the intimacy of the camera offer him much more latitude. The dreams, visions, hallucinations and fantasies of his characters are placed on an equal footing to the ordinary reality of their everyday lives. But their fantasies are marked by a knowing campness that ultimately renders them less real than the realistic human solidarity at the work's end.

What Kushner is presenting is a world which God has abdicated - leaving all the hocus-pocus of miracle and divine vision ultimately empty. Only real human compassion and mutual commitment seem of enduring value in this apocalyptic work - values under siege in Reagan's America, and by implication in Bush's contemporary America.

If you guessed that this is a work that hunts big game, you've got it right. The themes are big, but are carried lightly, with pace and humour. It is a credit to director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22, Primary Colours) that this sprawling epic is seldom over-the-top, and when it strays, it is often deliberately so.

What helps to sustain things are stunning performances from a near flawless cast. Apart from those already mentioned, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Jeffrey Wright create their roles convincingly - with Pacino, Streep, Wright and Mary Louise Parker picking up Golden Globe awards earlier this week.

Indeed, Pacino could be in line for an Emmy for his performance as heartless republican lawyer Roy Cohn, who is dying of AIDS but who continues to differentiate between homosexuals and himself (who "sometimes has sex with men"). "AIDS is what homosexuals have," he says. "I have cancer".

Streep fills multiple roles, from an ageing male Rabbi, to the ghost of convicted and executed "traitor" Ethel Rosenberg, to Hannah, Pitt's Mormon mother, while Thompson is as iconic as the angel that pronounces Prior a prophet as she is competent in the other roles she plays. Throw in Michael Gambon and Simon Callow in cameo roles and you've got a cast of divine proportions.

Using actors of this calibre, many of whom have firmly established careers on the big screen, provokes the question of why Angles in America was made for television.

In a medium where lowbrow, lowest-common-denominator reality TV slops are most commonly served up (apart from gems such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Office), wouldn't the cinema have been a more natural home for this complex, well-crafted, serious work? Probably, but it is doubtful it would have seen a US release beyond a few art-house cinemas in Manhattan, Seattle or San Francisco. What makes television a suitable forum for Angels in America is that it is a mass medium, and any artist with political commitment - such as Kushner - will want to reach a vast audience.

This is something the American right knows very well - look no further than CBS's recent pulling of its unflattering biopic of the former president in The Reagans. But, as Frank Rich has pointed out in the New York Times, the political right must have been dozing to let Kushner's drama through, especially when you consider the pressure exerted on CBS to bury The Reagans only weeks before.

What both The Reagans and Angels in America show is what a touchstone 1980s Reaganite America is for the current era. The present US administration has many old Reaganites in it. After the Clinton interlude, the Right's radical agenda is back on track with George Bush. And it is these extra-textual realities that breathe new relevance into this work of drama which might otherwise be a relic of Gorbachev's perestroika era and the end of the Cold War.

As Kushner says: "In addition to whatever its own intrinsic values are, it became a hit because of extrinsic events." He sees Angels as still relevant, partly because of what he calls a "profoundly dangerous re-occurrence of Reaganism in the form of the second Bush administration".

The attacks of September 11th, however, have coloured contemporary US atmosphere in a way unimaginable in the mid-1980s, when the drama is set.

As a work centrally concerned with the US, it would have been easy for Angels to appear quaint in the light of subsequent events.

Nichols and Kushner avoid that potential trap with a single, eerie scene. As Harper and Joe talk amid the ruins of their marriage on a Brooklyn rooftop, they speak in the shadow of the still-standing Twin Towers. In her prophetic dementia, Harper tells Joe "the end of the world is at hand" and there's "nothing like storm clouds over Manhattan to get you in the mood for judgment day".

Cleverly, but subtly, the sound of an airplane creeps into the soundtrack, and the scene ends, the frame empty but for the Manhattan skyline, dominated by the doomed towers of the World Trade Centre. Suddenly we realise that although 2000 has passed, the millennial moment has not.

But while an apocalyptic work, Angles in America is ultimately an artistic vision of hope. For Kushner, in this fallen world, miracles are still possible, and divinity is to be found in the habitual and everyday victory of living. While angels may not crash through the roof to save us and reveal to us the ultimate truth, there is value to be found in human forgiveness, in solidarity between races, and in solidarity between generations and between the different sexes and people of different sexual orientations.

As a "gay fantasia", this is a drama that offers a critique of mainstream society from the margins, but that calls for the marginalised to "be citizens", because their "time has come". Angels in America is millennial, prophetic, funny and moving.

Above all, it is vital viewing.

Angels in America, Channel 4, Saturday, February 7th and Sunday 8th. at 9 p.m.