'Stop Moving' is the injunction that runs throughout Angels in AmericaHBO

Angels in America is simultaneously the most perfect and most painful thing to watch right now.

I first watched Angels as a student production at the ADC; Part 2: Perestroika was actually put up less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic properly hit the United Kingdom. Even back before this pandemic broke out, it was already incredible to note just how relevant the play felt. Picking up the HBO miniseries production months later, in the wake of a vastly changed world, and I’ve found that everything I felt when I first saw the play has been intensified.

“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead”, says Harper (Mary-Jo Parker) at the end of the series, finally leaving her husband and setting off on her own. Now more than ever, we want to, like Harper, feel the progress of ‘dreaming ahead’. We want to move, to connect, to touch the people we love. We miss what is “normal”, what it feels like to move through a world intimately connected to global trades and flows. 

For days after I finished the HBO miniseries of ‘Angels in America’ while stuck in lockdown, I couldn’t get the series’ repeated injunction to “STOP MOVING” out of my head - it has never felt more literal. All of us have become Prior, with governments around the world asking us to stay home, not just to keep ourselves safe but also to protect our communities and buy time for scientists to find a cure or vaccine. At the same time, the injunction to cease movement also reads like a critique of the break-neck speed of progress enabled by hyperglobalisation that has facilitated the spread of the virus and created a global economy precariously reliant on the ceaseless movement of people and goods. In Angels, Kushner wants to say that progress, for all its discontents, is inevitable. Prior emphatically tells the Angel just how impossible it is for humans to stop moving: “It just… It just… We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is… modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for.’

Kushner writes of a bracing, yet hopeful experience of facing crsis togetherHBO

Naturally, the medium of film is different from theatre. In Kushner’s stage notes in the original play, he highlights the fact that “the moments of magic’ in the play ‘are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion...it’s O.K. if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do”. Regardless of the medium, one of Angels’ greatest strengths has always been how it’s unabashedly true to the terror of the AIDS crisis that gripped New York during the 1980s, refusing to shy away from the suffering that overwhelmed so many gay, black and Latino communities in the city. But it’s also the kind of show that makes you think history runs in cycles. The 1980s had the Reagan Presidency and the hole in ozone; we have the Trump presidency and climate change. Roy Cohn, a closeted Republican lawyer dying of AIDS in the play, was famously based off the real Roy Cohn, who was Trump’s ex-lawyer and mentor. Now, New York is once again ravaged by a disease that disproportionately affects the black and Latino communities. Now, we mourn the loss of Larry Kramer, AIDS activist, playwright and key inspiration to Kushner. Even as we miss the freedom and opportunity that globalisation has brought us, we are forced by the pandemic to confront the brutal truth that these global movements have never benefitted all of us equally. Then, and now, it is the weakest and the most vulnerable who are paying the price. The world feels like it’s about to end, or perhaps, has already ended, all over again.

In the series, the medium of film accentuates some of the best features of the play. In HBO’s interview with Kushner, he recounts how he appreciated that actors played multiple characters in the miniseries, just like how it is done in the play. “There's something in this story about that kind of dream-like thing of seeing the same actors playing different people, giving you the opportunity to think about the similarities”, the connection between two characters who are saying the same thing. Watching Emma Thompson play both Prior’s nurse and the Angel in the HBO miniseries blurred the boundaries between the two characters to a much greater extent than the theatrical production, precisely because film transitions are so seamless. We see her tell Prior to “stop moving” both as the nurse concerned for his health, and as the Angel, who thinks Prior is a prophet and wants him to tell all of humanity to stop progressing, in order to (hopefully) bring God back to Heaven.One of the things I remember loving in the ADC production was its ingenious use of LED lights. Demarking sections of the stage, these lights created rapid scene changes, taking the audience from Roy Cohn’s office to Harper’s home in a blink by illuminating different parts of the stage. But the lights were also theatrical spectacles in and of themselves, illuminating a stairway that Prior takes to reach Heaven. In contrast, the miniseries smoothly cuts from scene to scene; Prior ascends a CGI-flaming ladder to Heaven. The magic of film is amazing in its own way, but there are never any wires to show. The intimacy established between the actors on stage, and the audience, is one that cannot be replicated on film. 


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What Angels offers on stage is a shared sense of existential dread that feels, surprisingly, comforting. The beauty of Angels, in the words of Kushner himself, lies in the fact “apparently, nothing good is happening, but good things are happening.” Somewhere, in the mess of threads that have come from the unravelling of our tightly knit lives and systems, “the seeds of change are beginning to push upwards and through”.

“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead”, says Harper  at the end of Angels as she finally leaves her husband and sets off on her own. There is so much pain in the current pandemic: so many lives already lost; so much emotional and economic suffering that is bound to stretch on even after the worst of this disease is over. Yet, there are also tiny shoots of hope in every mutual aid group, every fundraiser, every applause for frontline healthcare workers. I don’t know if any of this will alleviate the suffering of those most affected by this crisis, or lead to deeper structural change in the way we live our lives. But, as Prior says when he goes to Heaven and rejects the prophecy given to him by the Angel, “… we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough. It's so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life.” Angels in America is sprawling and painful, which makes it the perfect show to watch as we continue in this crisis. We can only find hope in the best that we can do and hope against all hope that the ravages of this pandemic will come to an end and so reveal the shoots of a better world already beginning to take root.

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