Angels In America the six-hour television adaptation by Tony Kushner of his six-hour play, is extraordinary.
For those unfamiliar with the Pulitzer prize-winning phenomenon, Angels In America tells of a gay couple Prior and Louis; a closeted Mormon Republican and his Valium-addicted wife Harper; a black drag queen nurse called Belize and a fictional rendering of Roy Cohn, the very real lawyer of Senator Joe McCarthy and the enemy of liberalism. Prior and Cohn are dying of, and living with, AIDS.
Subtitled a gay fantasia on national themes, it also features ghosts (pictured), angels and hallucinatory holidays in Antarctica.
Although set between 1985 and 1990 it hasn’t dated, and history has, at least in part, vindicated Kushner. Delusional and paranoid, Harper and Prior have visions and hallucinations fed by the coming millennium: but neither of them could have predicted the events of 9/11 in the epoch’s first year.
There are plenty of moments when the event seems terribly stagy, the classic criticism of any play that gets filmed, although Kushner has thankfully cut whole scenes and characters that now seem pretentious.
Director Mike Nichols is also determined to give us what the stage cannot. Intimate scenes conclude with the camera spiralling upward providing an angel’s perspective on a truly global tragedy. If the playtext calls for a monologue spoken from a plane, then Nichols films it just so -“ except from outside the plane, the end of a zoom shot that begins in the clouds.
Kushner’s original cast doubling has been retained. For example, Meryl Streep plays the Mormon Mum, an elderly rabbi and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and they’re all incredible. It’s a theatricality that adds to the hallucinatory feel of the world.
Kushner’s stage directions advised against easy sentiment: The problems the characters face are finally among the hardest problems -“ how to let go of the past, how to change and lose with grace, how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering. It shouldn’t be easy.
It isn’t easy viewing and easy sentiment is avoided -“ but it’s still devastating because the acting is so very good. Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright have all won awards for this and are remarkable.
Angels In America still aims incredibly high and is sure to take you at least some way into the heavens.
Angels In America screens over three nights, on 8, 9 and 10 June at 8:30pm on ABC TV.