Wednesday, October 03, 2018

THE INHERITANCE at the Noel Coward - "Only connect the prose and the passion..."

We first heard about Matthew Lopez' play THE INHERITANCE in July 2017 after a rehearsed reading of BENT at the Lyttelton; in an after-show Q+A director Stephen Daldry said that his next project was an epic two-part play for the Young Vic called THE INHERITANCE.  When it was announced that Vanessa Redgrave would be appearing in it I managed to snap up tickets for both parts last May.

In May we got about 20 minutes into Part One before the lights blew!  After an agonizing 45 minutes, Daldry appeared onstage to announce that the problem could not be fixed and the show was cancelled - AUGH!  An agonizing wait for replacement tickets led to finally hearing that the Young Vic had re-booked us for it's West End transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre.  So, we begin...

Matthew Lopez was raised in the conservative Florida Panhandle, with feelings of otherness as his family were the only Puerto Ricans in town and also bullied at school for being gay.  His aunt is the actress Priscilla Lopez - the original 'Diana' in A CHORUS LINE - and he saw Broadway shows on family trips to New York, sparking interest in theatre. A concomitant love of films led him at the age of 15 to see James Ivory's HOWARDS END with his teacher mother, primarily because Emma Thompson was being considered a front runner for the Best Actress Oscar.  In his own words "that day changed my life".

Lopez was haunted by EM Forster's story and when his mother bought him the original book, he read it repeatedly.  Ten years later, Lopez was living in New York and finally realized why HOWARDS END meant so much to him when he learnt that Forster was homosexual.  Galvanized by Forster's influence and using HOWARDS END as a template, Lopez started writing a play about a group of professional gay men living in the New York of today and the often unspoken dichotomy of what has been gained since the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s and more importantly, what has been lost.

The NY gay community, the AIDS crisis and the two-part play of course echoes Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA and THE INHERITANCE can be seen as a complement - and reaction to - that epic's polemic and storytelling.  I think it's remarkable that both plays have had huge success in early productions in London: in fact THE INHERITANCE has still to be performed in America.

Ten students wrestle with how to tell a story.  An older man appears and selects one to show how to structure a narrative, he asks the student to use a favourite book as a template - of course the book is HOWARDS END and the older man is revealed as the spirit of EM Forster.  Out of the group emerge the young man's central couple: Eric Glass and Toby Darling.

Eric and Toby live together in an upper-East Side rent-controlled apartment that previously belonged to Eric's grandmother.  They lead a busy cultural and politically-engaged life surrounded by similar gay professional friends.  Toby has published a successful novel about a handsome, wealthy gay man in New York which he is adapting into a Broadway play.  They take Adam, a young actor and adopted son of a wealthy couple, under their wing.  He is cast as the lead in Toby's play and Toby joins him in a Boston preview tryout. Toby becomes obsessed with the enigmatic Adam, while Eric, alone in the apartment, befriends Walter, an older neighbour who lives with his longtime partner, Henry Willcox, a rich property investor.

Walter tells Eric of his life and how he is haunted by the devastation that AIDS brought to his friends and the fear and stigma they all felt. Walter also discloses how his and Henry's relationship  suffered when, on finding an old friend called Peter destitute and dying, Walter brought him to their upstate NY country house to spend his last days in comfort.  When Henry found out, he angrily denounced Walter for bringing the disease to their home and handed over the house to Walter, washing his hands of it. Walter made it a place to bring other gay men to die in peace as Peter had.

Walter dies suddenly before he can show Eric his house.  The bereft Eric - also rocked by Hillary Clinton's defeat - finally admits to Toby that their apartment is being reclaimed as it was in his grandmother's name only and they have to leave; Toby provokes a fight with Eric and walks out on their life, however when he tells Adam this, Toby is shocked to discover that the actor is dating the play's director.  Toby can't shake his obsession for Adam and sleeps with Leo, a rent-boy who resembles the actor.

Eric shares his grief over Walter with the enigmatic Henry Willcox who slowly becomes charmed with Eric's goodness; but even he is appalled when a note is found written by Walter saying he would like Eric to have the summer house.  Henry and his two grown sons destroy the note, swearing to keep it secret.  After Henry finds Eric a new apartment, he takes Eric to Walter's country home.  As Eric explores the deserted house, he is welcomed by the ghosts of the men who died there, including Walter's friend Peter.  Eric has found his spiritual home....

In the second play we see the ramifications of the characters' actions: Toby starts a relationship with Leo but as his chems addiction grows, Leo is left hurt emotionally and physically but still sees an anonymous, rich 'john'.  Despite Eric's friends being horrified that Henry is a Republican who happily financed the Trump campaign, Eric still agrees to marry Henry when he proposes.  Their wedding is disrupted by a drugged-up Toby, but Henry's violent anger at the presence of Toby's guest Leo makes Eric realize that he has been the anonymous man using Leo for sex.

The hurt and anger that all the characters feel make for new alliances: Toby finally confronts the fact that his assumed 'golden boy' status was in fact as unreal as his book - he came from a deprived home and faked his way into the NY scene, while Eric becomes friends with a contrite Adam again and discovers Leo destitute and badly sick with HIV.  Disgusted at Henry's refusal to help Leo - and haunted by Walter's actions - he takes Leo to Walter's old house.  On arrival, they meet Margaret, an elderly neighbour who has become almost a caretaker to the house, both physically and spiritually.  Eric discovers that, rather than just storing his grandmother's old furniture from the apartment there, Margaret has furnished the empty house with it.

Margaret reveals her son was one of the men who Walter brought to the house; she had never accepted her son's gayness and was reconciled with him only moments before he died.  She stayed on to nurse the following dying men to atone in some way for her actions and her revelations bring the story full-circle and all the characters to a conclusion which echoes Forster's famous phrase "only connect".

Stephen Daldrey's wonderful production - despite it's combined length of 6 and a half hours - never once lost my attention, his incisive direction knowing exactly when and how long to linger on a scene or a line, knowing that particular moment would gain greater resonance further into the story.  It was a pleasure to be able to pinpoint the moments that reference Forster's book - and rather than seem to be ripping off HOWARDS END, it illuminates the characters and the play.  Daldrey's patience in telling the story reaps massive rewards.

Lopez's play also touches on so many different levels and each play leaves space for two hugely enjoyable - almost Shavian - arguments: in the first, Eric and his friends debate the uneasy balance of gay life in the 21st Century, by gaining access to the straight world, does that mean that gay identity is defanged, it's history forgotten and it's very words co-opted and devalued into the straight world.  In the second play Lopez dissects the gay response to Trump when Eric's Hillary-voting circle of friends are appalled that Henry Willcox is not just a Republican but also contributed financially to Trump's campaign.  His polished intellectual debate to their emotive one is fascinating to watch.

But it's not all politics; Matthew Lopez slowly constructs fascinating characters whose inner lives are slowly revealed while also leading to highly emotional climaxes that really strike at the heart.  It is also as wildly funny as it is tender and hard-hitting.  What is THE INHERITANCE of the title?  The apartment that was Eric's family home? The inherited sadness of the AIDS crisis on the gay community?  The inheritance of the art and culture of previous generations?  The denied inheritance of Walter's house to Eric?  It's all of these and more.  Bob Crowley's wonderful design of a stark marble stage rising and lowering to suit the play's mood against the black backdrop which parts to reveal certain locations, make you really concentrate the mind to the characters and what they are saying.  Jon Clark's lighting and Paul Englishby's score also help to make the plays' shine.

Six and a half hours is a long time to concentrate on just 14 performers but Daldry's ensemble act with an intensity and fearlessness that is truly thrilling.  Kyle Soller takes on the central role of Eric and is magnificent: it is difficult to play someone who is a force of goodness and compassion but he manages it by making Eric warm and sympathetic that you root for him from the start, while Andrew Burnap, again in a difficult role, makes Toby also charismatic and interesting, even at his most heartless.

John Benjamin Hickey is excellent in the difficult role of Henry Willcox, a man used to living his life to his own intellectual rules who can only react with anger when faced with emotional decisions that cannot register in his ordered mind, and Paul Hilton is equally fine as ethereal Walter, a man out of time, and he deliciously turns on a sixpence to become the intellectual and conservative Forster, also in a sense out of his time, quietly marvelling at the quality of life he was never allowed living in the Edwardian era.

Samuel H. Levine again showed marvellous versatility in his dual roles as Toby's obsessions: Adam, the gay Eve Harrington who worms his way into the lead in Toby's play, and Leo, the lonely hustler with the bruised heart and secret love of literature.  He captured the narcissism and desperation of the two characters wonderfully.  And then there was Vanessa Redgrave as Margaret: you have to wait a long time for her as she appears in the penultimate scene of Part 2, but once she is onstage she illuminates all that has gone before.

In her thrilling monologue, Vanessa hits the grieving but loving heart of the play; Margaret is forever haunted by her disgust at her son's teenage revelation of being gay and her subsequent blotting him out of her life.  Without sentiment but conveying the truth of the character, Vanessa played the remembered moments of seeing her dying son and their fleeting reunion before his death, a tremor in her voice and a catch in her throat was all that was needed to show the grief.  As important as her performance is to the play, her sheer presence alone is special - while watching her I could not forget her first husband Tony Richardson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1991, a year after the death of her friend Ian Charleson.  There was also another reason to celebrate her appearance in Matthew Lopez' play: she, of course, played Margaret Willcox in the film of HOWARDS END that so inspired him as a teenager - the film is even mentioned in the play which provokes a character to yell "Emma Thompson!  Vanessa Redgrave!!"

The other actors all deserve to be mentioned: Hugo Bolton, Robert Boulter, Hubert Burton, Syrus Lowe, Michael Marcus, Jack Riddiford, Michael Walters and Joshua De La Warr.

THE INHERITANCE is at the Noel Coward Theatre until the 19th January, click on the cast shot below to book tickets...

An already memorable year in theatre-going has just been made more wonderful by THE INHERITANCE.  If you love theatre and the alchemy of a wonderful script, committed performances and exquisite direction, you must see THE INHERITANCE.

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