Writer: Matthew Lopez
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The cultural impact of Tony Kusher’s 1990s epic Angels in America cannot be underestimated; a once-in-a-decade piece of theatre that actively changed our understanding of the experience of homosexuality. A year on from the National Theatre’s spectacular revival, the world premiere of Matthew Lopez’s equally epic two-part piece The Inheritance could not have existed without Kusher, but proves to the equal of the earlier piece, taking the story into the modern day and examining the threat to shared history and a sense of community that greater tolerance has afforded.
Lopez has adapted E. M. Forster’s seminal novel about class and culture, Howard’s End, which remains remarkably faithful to the novel’s plot and emotional resonance. Substituting sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel for lovers Eric Glass and Toby Darling, and transferring the action to a rent-controlled apartment in fashionable New York, the central couple slowly drift apart as their lives take on parallel tracks when they meet wannabe actor Adam (a partial Leonard Bast role). The emotionally repressed but sexually voracious Toby achieves writing success taking him into a world of casual encounters, while Eric finds a spiritual connection with the Wilcoxes that entirely alters his view of his sexuality as he discovers the importance of the past.
Part One of The Inheritance unpicks the process of self-examination and self-realisation, taking the audience to the point in the novel where old and new lives combine to form a different concept of individual being – where Margaret Schlegel, or here Eric Glass, first encounters a mystical connection to the unnamed Wilcox country home where so many ill and persecuted men sought sanctuary in the late 1980s.
The skill with which Lopez combines Forster’s plot with elegant debate about the uncertain future of homosexual community is superb and seamless. He meaningfully equates the First World War idea of a “lost generation” with those who died from AIDS and HIV-related illnesses, suggesting, as Forster does, that to know the future is to know the past. Part One is a passionate plea to engage and honour gay history in order to shape the future, wrapped in a richly evocative world of love, loss and cultural inequality, where knowledge and understanding is prized as highly as wealth and status.
Told simply on an entirely bare raised platform with a black wall designed by Bob Crowley, 10 actors are seated around the edge, and with the exception of the leads, each steps onto the platform to play multiple roles. Director Stephen Daldry utilises Lopez’s evocative scene creation to keep the action moving swiftly as tens of locations and almost a year are convincingly implied across three hours and 20 minutes of performance.
The simplicity of it initially seems unsustainable in so long a show, but Daldry ensures that the most significant moments grip fiercely and with nothing in the way, the actors focus on the storytelling, the interweaving of plot with intellectual discussion on the nature of writing, of managing a narrative – as the character of E. M. Forster does here – and of knowing when the fictional creations have a life and agency of their own. Despite the slightest sag at the end of the first 70 minutes, Daldry gives all of this plenty of room to breath, building to a satisfying and poignant mid-point conclusion.
As Eric, Kyle Soller is a warm and loved figure, respected by his friends and open to a variety of cultural experience. Eric’s loyalty and ability to feel deeply are gradually introduced into Soller’s performance as a butterfly-like emergence begins. The pain Soller relays as a result of the relationship troubles are matched by an equal delight in his emancipated view of life, seeing Eric’s stature visible alter as he learns to value his own view of the world
Andrew Burnap’s arrogant and entitled Toby is only partially the villain of the piece, but really is a tortured soul who cannot bare to look back for fear of what history may encourage him to feel. Every casual encounter takes him further away from his true self, and Burnap shows Toby hitting out at anyone who challenges him, only living for the moment with nothing but a material concern for what’s to come.
As E.M. Forster, Paul Hilton has a strange role of slightly impartial narrator and teacher in which he represents Lopez’s own engagement with the craft, and meta-references to managing an unfolding story. Hilton brings equal subtly to the spectral role of Walter Wilcox (the first Mrs Wilcox in the novel) who has the most extraordinary monologue in the second section explaining how he cared for the sick during the AIDS crisis, acting out of duty rather than safety which is beautifully delivered and one of the most significant moments in this half of the show.
The Inheritance: Part One is far more than half a story superbly told, it is a play for our times. As the central platform visible sinks at the moment Trump is elected, Lopez’s story ha the power of a state-of-the-nation piece about what it means to be gay in modern America. With the timely arrival of Henry Wilcox towards the end of Part One, the characters about to step into unchartered territory and the promise of Vanessa Redgrave, Lopez has set himself an extraordinarily high bar for Part Two.
Runs until 19 May 2018 in rep with Part Two | Image: Simon Annand