The Inheritance @ Young Vic: More Life

I had high hopes for this. The second I heard about it, back at the Bent Q&A last summer, I was sure it was going to be up my street, particularly with Stephen Daldry attached, and then when that cast was announced… yeah high hopes, particularly with it being such a large time investment.  If a play is gonna last 7+ hours and I’m gonna see it in one day and in previews then I’m gonna be expecting something worth that time.

It surpassed all my expectations.

I don’t cry often – not something I’m particularly proud of – I prefer to express emotion through, you know, snarkily insulting someone. I show affection by angrily swearing at someone. I let people know I’m emotional by getting very drunk and ranting about politics. You know, that sort of thing. The inescapably remarkable thing about The Inheritance is the emotional potency it acquires so quickly. An hour in, I was choked up. By the end of part one, TEARS. ACTUAL FUCKING TEARS.

Fuck you Matthew Lopez. Seriously. You’ve crafted a play that slips under the skin so quickly and with such ease that it annoys me.

Lord knows I’m prone to hyperbole but I know it’s justified in this instance. The Inheritance is a properly wonderful play. One of the best I’ve seen. The audacity of its conception is brilliant enough, let alone the accomplishment of its execution. Let it be known that what follows is a rave and I urge you to book a ticket to see this thing immediately. Don’t miss this.

*

                The law of the past cannot be eluded,

                The law of the present and future cannot be eluded,

                The law of the living cannot be eluded… it is eternal

– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass [To Think of Time]

The play claims to be inspired by Howards End, but it seems to me more of a loose adaptation of it. Lopez lifts plot elements and characterisations completely, and transposes them to the context of a group of gay men in today’s New York City. It works beautifully.

Eric Glass is a terminally middle-class gay man in New York City, about to lose the lease on a rent-controlled apartment that has been in his family for generations. As this is happening, his friendship with an older man, Walter, develops and when Walter dies, he asks his partner Henry to ensure Eric gets his beloved house. Simultaneously, Eric’s relationship with writer-and-playwright Toby is disintegrating, and Toby finds solace in Adam, an actor. There’s a lot of people to keep track of, and a lot of plot that happens – though that’s part and parcel with a 7+ hour play.

It was strange too to see a new play deal so explicitly with the passage of time, which seems central to modern revivals of classic texts (and the thing I thought was missing from Long Day’s Journey,) in allowing the drama to unfold in its own time, knowing full well that the first act can often be written off as dramatically inert. I did ask myself after the first part ‘when did the play start?’ and I concluded the play had probably started after the second interval. That’s the moment something shifts – but who cares when what came before it is so important in its own ways.

The play breaks apart and reconstructs itself continuously, language is fussed over and clarified, stories get ripped from their ‘owners,’ within the structure and within the narrative. It does so on about 5 levels that I don’t wholly understand; for example, there is the surface reconstruction – the play starts with a writing workshop, and someone starts up the story, with the help of E.M. Forster. Then there’s Toby, obsessed with writing his own version of events, no matter how far they are from reality, but then under that, as Toby reconstructs his past, and gives it different forms, his counterpart in Howards End shifts as well.

Weirdly, it feels like the best dramatization of historical revisionism I can imagine. Which struck me as relevant; one of the problems with the history of the AIDS crisis is those that have written it either died, or they lived through it and as such knew people who died. Certain voices have necessarily been privileged because of what was taken away. It’s a detriment to the historiography, as well as humanity. Eric has a speech in the play where he mourns what he has lost in the epidemic, as someone who grew up afterwards; mentors and friends and lovers… storytellers, perhaps most of all.

*

David’s lover, Sal Licata, had invited Jane [Rosett] and a few other close friends to David and Sal’s seventh anniversary celebration, to, as Sal put it, “hang out in bed and hold David while he pukes.” Jane wrote, “Who could resist? It was a party. David held court and stressed how honoured he was to have lured a lesbian into his king-size bed. […] Within a few days, David was dead, and within a few years, everyone else in David’s bed that day – except me – was also dead.”

-Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, p.7

Regarding the emotional potency of the play, there is the painful fact that any story that encounters the AIDS epidemic will always be upsetting, because remembering how a hundred thousand people had their lives ripped away while a country – well, a world – did nothing will always be upsetting. If anything, we’re probably guilty of historicizing AIDS, once the aggressive campaign of direct action started to wane, so too did a perception of the urgency of the crisis. It’s where The Inheritance is so successful; in making that past tangible in the room.

There is a stark, utter simplicity to Daldry’s production, which is played out on a white slab that doesn’t really do a lot. It’s like a tombstone, or a sacrificial altar. Somewhere for a ritual to be repeated. There’s a sense of purging, or exorcism. In opening the text up like that, allowing the fluidity of the play’s reality to be absolutely clear, he makes it a play where the actors are given absolute control, and it seems absolute freedom too.

The acting is exceptional. It’s rare you get 3 or 4 actors that excellent in something, let alone a dozen of them. Exceptional doesn’t seem like an appropriate word for what they’re doing actually, but it’ll have to do. (I didn’t want to do a shopping list of excellent actors but that’s what the next bit turned into. Sorry.)

In that exceptional company, I think Paul Hilton probably was my favourite. Doubling as Walter, dying of cancer, and ‘Morgan,’ aka E.M. Forster himself. The voice of reason, of rationality, of physical insecurity and inarticulacy, and of ruthless self-criticism as the latter, and the embodiment of compassion and empathy as the former. He has a monologue, maybe 10, 15 minutes(?) in the very first act that seems to conjure the height of the epidemic around you. It’s complete terror, complete fear, complete chaos – and all it is, actually, is Hilton’s voice, as he sits in a chair. It’s totally remarkable. Christ Hilton’s good; it doesn’t feel like 5 minutes since he was flying in the Olivier as Peter Pan. Maybe that’s what was so moving, he seemed to embody the frailty of sickness, the resolve of the British upper-middle classes and a childlike curiosity all at once.

The bulk of the narrative, however falls on Kyle Soller as Eric. It’s a slippery part (in a way that did remind me of Prior,) in that I can imagine it being completely unmemorable in the hands of the wrong actor. Soller is not that wrong actor. He’s nimble, and quick with his language and his physicality. There’s a repeated refrain, as to how remarkable Eric is, and yet he doesn’t know it. I was thinking a lot about what made him remarkable, given that he appears so utterly normal. Eric’s capacity for empathy and compassion is unmatched in the play after Walter’s death, and he has such a conviction that you know it’s genuine, not performative, and he’s self-aware enough to recognise that. And then it hit me that what was so brilliant about Soller was how he managed to channel all that into complete normality. He makes it look utterly natural, utterly possible.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Andrew Burnap as Toby. Holy shit. Can we steal him? I know he’s American but if Broadway’s sure to get a steady stream of British Harry Potters, surely we can nick one American actor? He’s so good. He’s so hateable and so cold, with a dangerous sexuality to him, but you sense those vast chasms of empty space underneath that. His narcissism is palpable, which makes its systematic destruction all the more stark. His arc is melodramatic, sure, but Burnap makes it work, and makes it look so easy. And he makes you howl with laughter while he does it.

John Benjamin Hickey shows up after the first interval, as Henry Wilcox, Walter’s partner for decades. Henry’s a dick. A Republican donor, including (gasp!) to the candidate, he takes on every single one of Eric’s friends’ ideas of the world, turns it around and flips it for a profit. What’s frustrating is how easily he does it. The debate about AIDS in an era of small government felt like a really uncomfortable truth finally being talked about, but how he frames it is kind of disgusting. Hickey never makes you hate Henry, it’s more complicated than that, but you’re furiously trying to work out his interior architecture. Why the hell is he reacting like that? Henry, more than any other part lets the play happen to him. He’s reactionary in every sense.

Samuel H. Levine – another American! – has two jobs. He has to make a narcissistic, privileged, twat bearable for 7+ hours, and he has to play the absolutely most vulnerable a human being can be, and at one point he does it when they’re both in conversation with each other. One of the play’s strengths is in its long stretches of monologue, one of which is given to Adam, (the narcissistic, privileged, twat. An actor, incidentally,) where he describes the ecstasy of a Czech bathhouse, and then the panic of a HIV scare. The way Levine can play the bottom falling out of a story is terrifyingly good.

Vanessa Redgrave is also in the play. She’s fantastic.

You could watch the whole play again just to watch the actors that spend the play sat at the peripheries of the playing space. I’m fascinated by whether they’re in character, or not, or somewhere in between. I want to watch them watch the play.

*

People have brought up the diversity question, as well they should. The Inheritance has a cast of 13, 12 of whom are men, (the other is Vanessa Redgrave, who we all know sits outside all know human realms,) and only 2 are POC. They’re all attractive, affluent, middle-class characters.

I suppose for me, that was the point. It doesn’t represent an entire spectrum, because to attempt to do so, even in a 7+ hour play would probably be terrible, and would do everybody a disservice. The point of Howards End, to me, was that it dramatized intra-class conflicts and ambitions, not inter-class conflicts and ambitions. It’s the same with The Inheritance; it is very specifically about the concerns of affluent, attractive, metropolitan gay men in New York City. It makes no claims to do otherwise.

That’s not to say the plays that aren’t about the concerns and ambitions of affluent, attractive, metropolitan gay men shouldn’t be written and given such large platforms as this, because I want to see them too. But I did find some of the dismissal of the play on the diversity front utterly nonsensical. The liberal tendency for cannibalism rearing its head again.

*

I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld…These are not invisible men.

Ned Weeks, in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

The Inheritance certainly knows what it has inherited. It understands its lineage, Forster being the most obvious reference, but there is Angels in America in there (a literal angel at one point – maybe I’ll grapple with all the Angels comparative stuff in another blog) and there’s Chekhov, there’s Williams and O’Neill, there’s Kramer’s anger, a Fierstein-like defiance, a Shavian combat-like spat of ideas, a Tóibínesque warmth… But it’s steeped in this history, it doesn’t brandish it in your face in any way that feels academic; this isn’t some postmodern stick-it-in-a-blender play, it’s considered, and seems proud of its heritage, not determined to separate itself entirely.

But it does stand by itself. It only relies on its own story, but in its awareness that it is nonetheless part of a lineage it is far stronger than an eternally implicitly referential piece. It reminded me of something someone (??? help) said about how gay culture has gone from being referential, to being referenced. We’re at a point now where it gets taken seriously. Where’s it’s worthy of space – though its often a space not nearly big enough.

The political gesture of the play is that it doesn’t have a broad political gesture. It’s not polemical; it’s argumentative, and Lopez clears the narrative periodically to allow the characters to have a good old debate (very Act 3, Scene 2 of Millennium Approaches,) but it can afford to be subtle, and nuanced. I know I’ve already forgotten so much.

*

So, the end of the first part. I’m going to try and capture that moment, and I’m sure I will fail miserably.

Eric arrives at the house Walter had wanted him to have, oblivious to this fact. It’s the house where Walter had cared for 200 men, all of whom had AIDS, all of whom are buried in the garden. It’s the house that destroyed Walter’s relationship, the house that brought the plague into Henry’s protective bubble. It’s the house that men went to die in.

And as Eric walks into the house, there’s a man there, a man we haven’t seen before – which is strange, considering the cast sit around the stage the entire time – but he looks slightly other. He doesn’t quite fit. And then there’s many men, floating onto that stage from the audience, shaking Eric’s hand, shaking everyone’s hand, introducing themselves, still looking not-of-this-time. And then, of course, it clicked. They were ghosts, or memories; memories in 80s-dress of the men that had died. And they sit round the stage, and Eric sits with them. It’s as if they’re about to take communion, or something. And they look like us, like a mirror image of the audience.

It sort of felt like they were really there.

*

If there is a weirdness to The Inheritance, it’s that the play is premiering at the Young Vic. Which is in London. Why the hell is it not on the biggest bloody stage in America? I can only hope its run here is the prologue to a recognition of this play in the country it dramatizes. If I needed to hear the words of this play, God knows how much our American counterparts do. When people talk about theatre as a religious experience… well I felt it that day.

It feels like a landmark, something that will be inherited in its time. At least I think so, but it’s never really for those of us that were there to decide.

aids_memorial_design-01
The New York City AIDS Memorial, adjacent to the site of St. Vincent’s hospital, which housed one of America’s first AIDS wards. It was opened in 2016 – until then, there was no permanent memorial in New York City. (https://nycaidsmemorial.org/about/)

Photo by Simon Annand.

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