Wings of desire

Television - An anachronistic vision of Reagan-era America fails to convert Andrew Billen

In his two Angels in America plays, Tony Kushner delivered a secular Book of Revelation to a United States that seemed to be hurtling to hell. The best were dying of Aids, the worst were full of Reaganite intensity. By the time they were performed ten years ago, they already formed a commentary on a retreating era, the 1980s, but the conclusion was still to play for. HBO's revival of the work as a Mike Nichols "film" (it was actually six hour-long episodes, shown unhelpfully last weekend in two three-hour chunks on Channel 4) therefore posed the question: was Nichols revisiting Angels as a period piece or as a classic still relevant today?

Some theatre critics certainly hailed the play as a masterpiece at the time, although theatre critics have a very soft spot for camp. I was not so convinced, although I admired the attempt to combine the epic with the domestic, the acting (especially Stephen Dillane, at the National Theatre, as the Aids-stricken hero Prior Walter) and the spectacular stagecraft that involved an angel crashing into Prior's sickroom and pronouncing him "the Prophet".

This big-money adaptation had a reverential feel, as if it was working from a sacred text, and American cinema's two great classical actors, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, paid it the compliment of taking central parts - in Streep's case several central parts, as well as a cameo as a male rabbi. Yet although the text was embedded in the 1980s and a dread of the coming millennium, Nichols made little attempt to recreate the look or fashions of the decade, as if his message was: Angels in America - as good for you today as it's always been.

Was it? For my part, I believe the great questions posed by Angels have mostly been answered by the passage of time. Politically and economically, the battle has been won by the right. Socially, liberalism has prevailed. In ever-widening circles, anti-gay prejudice is considered to be as unacceptable as racial or sexual discrimination. Aids killed millions but it did not kill homosexuality. Far from pronounce a death sentence on sex, it encouraged an increasing openness. Society has been feminised and softened in its conversations, just as economically it has become ever more bull-headed. So, seen from today, Kushner's fundamentally optimistic play looks partly prophetic and partly not. (Although Senator Kerry's sudden surge encourages one to think the game may finally end in more than a score draw for the left.)

Despite Thomas Newman's beautiful score, the loudest sound to be heard in the piece is of a playwright whistling in the wind of a distant era, as he attempts to keep morale up during some very dark days. Although forgiveness is his bottom line ("Maybe it's where love and justice finally meet"), Kushner could not help gloating at the death of his anti-hero Roy Cohn, the closet homosexual who prosecuted those luckless communist spies the Rosenbergs, an act, it was implied, made all the more heinous by Cohn being gay enough to acknowledge La Cage aux Folles as the greatest thing on Broadway, "perhaps ever". Kushner has the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (played by Streep as an animated 1950s newspaper photograph) haunt his final days and smile at his death. It is a tribute to Pacino's wild yet impeccably judged performance that he allowed us to feel pity for such a vilified caricature.

The concurrent plots are much more lenient towards their other protagonists. The politically agitated Louis Ironson shamefully leaves Prior, his lover, when Prior is diagnosed with Aids, but is granted some absolution by the end. The married Mormon Joe Pitt, who works in the despised legal system writing right-wing judgements, slowly recognises his marriage is a lie and teams up with Louis. His abandoned wife Harper (the always wonderful Mary-Louise Parker) spends time in an Antarctic wilderness, but finally acknowledges her liberation. Meanwhile, Joe's mother, a devout Mormon who flies in from Salt Lake City when her son drunkenly confesses his sexuality, turns out to have one of the kindest hearts of all. Once again Meryl Streep triumphs, despite the irritating mannerisms in her performances, allowing us to believe passionately in Hannah Porter Pitt's (and therefore Mid-America's) fundamental all-rightness. And so gradually, the main characters move towards the saintliness of the black gay Aids nurse Belize, played with great joie de vivre by Jeffrey Wright.

There were many Emmy-level performances to enjoy, Emma Thompson's as the Angel not included, and some terrific comic speeches of an extravagance and length that television drama rarely accommodates. Nichols made full use of outdoors New York to turn theatre into cinema (although, inevitably, visual effects that are surprising in the Cottesloe look less so when you see as much on Buffy most weeks). It still felt a long six hours.

My deepest regret, however, is that Kushner's prophecy about the redundancy of religion in America has proved so fallible. When Prior briefly attends a Powell and Pressburger-style heaven to rescind his office of Prophet, he tells the angels they should sue God: "He walked out on us. He ought to pay." Works such as Angels and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are so suffused with Christian imagery that they perpetuate the religiosity they aim to destroy. Along with daily prayers in the White House and vengeance in the Middle East, God looks all set to enjoy another unhealthily healthy innings.

Andrew Billen is a feature writer on the Times

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