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The Inheritance, Young Vic review - a long day’s journey into light | reviews, news & interviews

The Inheritance, Young Vic review - a long day’s journey into light

The Inheritance, Young Vic review - a long day’s journey into light

One part Angels in America to six parts Howards End

Kyle Soller with the company of The Inheritance at the Young VicSimon Annand

About a decade ago, theatre-makers started routinely describing themselves as being in the business of storytelling.

And “storytelling” is most certainly the term that best describes Matthew Lopez’s two-part, seven-hour epic The Inheritance. Beautifully cast, economically designed and directed with strikingly elegant simplicity by Stephen Daldry, it has plenty to recommended it but there’s no denying a central problem. This gay male revamp of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End is a case of too much telling of story at the expense, all too often, of true drama. 

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That self-defining line actually comes not from The Inheritance but from the blockbuster Hamilton, but American dramatist Lopez appears to be channelling those defining concerns. Where Forster was looking at the mores, manners and morality of turn-of-the-twentieth century England, Lopez relocates those concerns to the present generation of gay men just too young to have witnessed the “AIDS crisis” that erupted in New York in the early-1980s. With a degree of self-consciousness that the production rarely shrugs off, these are initially represented as a class of literature students (all with perfect honed bodies) with their teacher Morgan (excellent Paul Hilton – by turn a quizzical, amused and exasperated listener, picture below right) who leads them into, literally, retelling and acting out the novel to illuminate their lives and the history they missed.Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance at the Young VicBorrowing a technique created by Caryl Churchill in Blue/Heart and then capitalised upon by Nick Payne in his London and New York hit Constellations, their chosen characterisations are questioned and reset by both Morgan and the group, often winning big laughs with the men sharply rebuked for choosing too flattering versions of themselves. 

Forster focused on his leading character Margaret and her growing understanding of personal and political – in the widest sense – responsibility. In her stead, Lopez creates 33-year-old, socially concerned gay lawyer Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, the play’s emotional pivot who grows inexorably from neurosis through to wisdom, pictured above left) who has been living for seven years with his younger, more restless, would-be playwright partner Toby (brittle Andrew Burnap, possessed of whiplash timing, pictured right). The neuroses and damaging split-up of a once-loving couple is not the only parallel with Tony Kushner’s more fully realised Angels in America. Their lives are overturned by the arrival of impressionable and keen Adam (alert yet relaxed Samuel H. Levine) and, crucially, Walter (Hilton, now gently deferential) who, like Forster’s Mrs. Wilcox, has an appealing house in the country with his Republican partner Henry (impressively calm John Benjamin Hickey) that Walter wants to bequeathe to Eric.

Samuel H. Levine and Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance at the Young Vic

It’s not just the role of the titular house that the novel and play have in common. Indeed, the plotting runs so closely in parallel that in terms of drama, the more you know the novel, the Merchant/Ivory film or the BBC’s recent Kenneth Lonergan adaptation – not to mention Zadie Smith’s hommage of a novel On Beauty which Lopez cannot resist referencing not once but twice – the less satisfying the show becomes. The unanswered question is why Lopez cleaves so fiercely to the novel – the left-behind umbrella – check; being forced out the loved apartment – check; the gate-crashed wedding - check; the late reveal of Henry Wilcox’s affair - check – when its his imaginative divergence from Forster that produces his most fully engaging material.

Indeed, one of the highlights is the startling, extended speech Lopez writes for the hitherto seemingly naive Adam. He fesses up to his first visit to a bathhouse at which he becomes the centre of an orgy of unprotected sex with fifteen men. As Adam recounts the initially ecstatic experience, the temperature on stage and in the auditorium rockets. But the power of that sequence makes you realise what has been missing elsewhere whenever Lopez uses the novelist’s third-person narration. Scenes and situations are endlessly set up by the actors describing, as a novelist would do, what they are feeling or doing. Being baldly told where a character is – “X arrives at the apartment” – or what he is doing rather than acting it out doesn’t elicit emotion in the listener. And that’s the central dilemma: for too much of the time, we are mere listeners to near ceaseless exposition with not enough subtext to discern and hold on to for dramatic effect. Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller in The Inheritance at the Young VicMuch of the more prosaic writing is disguised by Daldry’s adroit, fluid choreography of the cast across Bob Crowley’s long, bald, wooden, table-like floor, the crispness of the performances ideally complemented by Jon Clark’s wide-ranging, wonderfully eloquent lighting that delineates individual mood and moment without ever drawing attention to itself.  

Lopez’s thematic ambition and his portrait of generation in relation to its political past is hugely welcome and after a slump in tension as the plotlines have to be explained throughout the middle of the second part, the entire show finally finds its deepest emotional register with the arrival of Vanessa Redgrave as the wise housekeeper. It’s not just her patient description of the scores of young men whom she cared for in their dying days that induces rapt concentration, it’s the ache of understanding and experience that she lends to her every look. And with her and Eric’s character trajectories newly at variance to Forster, the play ends on uplifting note of compassionate hope. 


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