Writer: Matthew Lopez
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“The only way to fix heartache is to risk more” claims the character of E. M. Forster in the second part of Matthew Lopez’s epic new play The Inheritance, and while the earlier performance was concerned with political statements and the art of narrative, the concluding half puts its characters through a series of tests, pushing them to their emotional limits and forcing them to finally confront their past.
Having left Toby, Eric and Leo on the cusp of what they imagine is a certain new life, Lopez decides to pull the rug from under them. For all of them, what starts as loving relationships – Toby and Leo, Eric and Henry – are soon weighed down by the baggage of their earlier lives. Lopez draws direct parallels between the couples as we watch their connection slowly disintegrate, and ultimately having to decide whether each man can face another beginning or accept the ultimate end.
Part Two dispenses with Forster as an external narrator and instead allows the characters to take fully control of their own journey. In doing so, they depart more substantially from Forster’s original story for Howard’s End and instead Lopez colours-in the interior life of the leads, giving each a sensitive monologue when they reach an impasse, as well as fleshing out one of Forster’s minor roles, the housekeeper here named Margaret (Vanessa Redgrave), given an expanded role as former carer and substitute mother to the men who came to die at the Wilcox country home at the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
A continual refrain in the second part of The Inheritance is the nature of truth, particularly in art, and it opens with a dinner party in which Henry Wilcox meets Eric’s friends, debating the purpose of making and destroying art as an activity in self-discovery. This is reprised later as Toby finally writes a more meaningful play that tells his truth but is considered artistic garbage by those around him. Revealing a true self to the world is still perilous it seems.
In departing from Forster’s guiding hand, Lopez’s play naturally becomes more sprawling and at times overstretches itself as the weight of 3 hours and 35 minutes bears down. There is an attempt to demonstrate the wider and ongoing impact of the many deaths that resulted from America’s fear or neglect of sufferers in the 1980s, but Part Two occasionally becomes a little repetitious, and the debates too polemical, drawing away from the core characters for too long.
The leads acquit themselves extremely well in this more difficult second half, each losing their way and finding no one to reach out to. Kyle Soller’s early optimism and excitement convincingly evolves into a growing despair at being a kept man with no proper purpose. Largely abandoned by his friends and unable to find a communion with his partner Henry, Soller’s Eric goes through the fire, willing to abandon everything to find a spiritual peace.
With Toby’s fame at its height as the play begins, Andrew Burnap essentially builds a bonfire for his character, becoming increasingly manic until nothing but the flames can purge the venom. Although vain and often cruel, Burnap creates considerable sympathy for Toby whose eventual confrontation with the past he’s spent years running away from is delicate and moving.
Samuel H. Levine as Leo takes on the other half of the Leonard Bast role, a rent boy broken down by his emotionless encounters and desperate for kindness. Mistaking Toby’s lust for something more, he earns his own narrative voice which Levine utilises to convey all the untapped feeling and cultural sensitivity within. John Benjamin Hickey’s Henry is one of the most fascinating aspects of Part Two, a man who, like Toby, has spent his life running away. And while Hickey demonstrates the assurance of the billionaire who puts self-preservation above helping strangers, Henry is haunted by the ghosts of his past relationship and the guilt of surviving an era in which so many died. “There are no gay men my age, not nearly enough” he cries linking passion and death in a way the younger characters cannot grasp.
The idea of an inheritance is, then, given multiple meanings, not just wealth or property handed down the generations as the story unfolds, but also versions of HIV passed from man to man for decades, as well as the historic experience of persecution and death which Lopez wants to be the basis of a new, supportive community. As windows of happiness open-up at the back of Bob Crowley’s set, revealing beautiful poolside sunsets and striking autumn days, carving up the continual black, the audience wants that too, a happy ending and a chance of redemption, even if we have to risk a bit more heartache to get it.
Runs until: 19 May 2018 in rep with Part One | Image: Simon Annand