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Angels in America (HBO)

Saw the STC production a few years ago - last performance actually. Never saw Nickleby so this was my first taste of epic-length (ie 7 or so hour, with intermissions) theatre.

Wish I could say if the HBO adaptation was faithful to the stage play, but - I'm embarrassed to say - I don't remember the play very well at all. Not the details anyway, just the the sweep of it (unmatched until the second act of Pentecost some years later), the odd scene (the ending of Part I, "I live with my parents") and the overpowering theatricality of it.

I've tried in the past to distil the principles of transforming a work from one medium to another. Most broadly, I think it comes down to two:

1) The new work has to work as an example of the new medium.

2) The new work has to be true to the "core" (whatever that is) of the source material.

But what's interesting about Angels in America is that the "core" of the work is - in large part - the very theatricality which would make it difficult to work as a piece of television.

The wordy dialogue (eloquence so effective on the stage comes across as contrived on screen), the convention of doubling actors in multiple roles (Streep and Thompson are recognisable even under layers of latex and fake beards), the playing off of two scenes simultaneously (which I assume and vaguely remember in the stage play), the - for the times, but perhaps not the budget - tacky special effects (understandable on stage, but less so in today's CGI-uber-alles film world), even the addresses to camera (perhaps more disconcerting to AiA than, say, in House of Cards, because the only time it's done is at the very end after nearly six hours of respecting the fourth wall).

So is the HBO adaptation true to the essence of the play? Almost certainly, though I'd have to see another production to be sure. But let's disregard that minor caveat and say, yes of course. Heck, after all, Tony Kushner himself wrote the screenplay, so if anybody should be the judge of it, he should.

But does it work as a piece of television?

In some ways, yes, oh God yes. The performances are first rate. Pacino, vamps and rants as he so often does, but restrains himself sufficiently that it manages to stay entertaining, and he even evokes some moments of vulnerability and pathos. Streep similarly manages to contain the mannerisms which were noticeable to a distracting degree in, say, The Hours. It took me minutes to recognise Thompson as the nurse when she first appeared (and she looked quite glorious as the angel). But I'd suggest that the less-well known actors actually stole the show - Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson and Jeffrey Wright, possibly because they didn't have to carry the burden of fame and familiarity. Mary Louise Parker... well, I'm not one to judge, I find her acting style annoying... though she wasn't quite so in AiA as she is in The West Wing. I think they wanted to go for someone who could portray strength as well as vulnerability, and in this respect she was successful. I just don't like the pointed, almost pinched way she delivers her lines. And even she had her moments.

There were some very powerful scenes...Jeffrey Wright's scene with Pacino about heaven and hell for instance, or Shenkman and Streep saying the Kaddish (?) over Pacino's body.

But those were powerful theatre moments. While there was some attempt to "open up" the play (one of the few obvious nods to the new form) AiA was I believe in fact the most theatrical television I've ever seen. More so even than, say, the TV version of Copenhagen or quintessentially talky pieces like Conspiracy (the dramatisation of the Nazi conference on the Final Solution).

Did it work as a piece of television? Maybe, possibly not as an example of the form. But did it work as a piece of drama and entertainment? Definitely.

So maybe so much for my theory as to what constitutes a successful adaptation...

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 28, 2004 1:42 PM.

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