Another one ticked off the list. I first read Arthur Kopit‘s Wings maybe twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been curious to see a production ever since. An odd, distinctive, fiercely intelligent and unsentimental play, it offers a unique portrayal of a stroke victim trying to feel her way back towards a world she can no longer understand, and in which she can no longer make herself understood. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, and it’s hardly the kind of entertainment where you can just sit back and let it wash over you – but it’s a fascinating piece of writing, and it isn’t often produced in this country.
As far as I’m concerned, Natalie Abrahami‘s astonishing revival at the Young Vic more than does it justice – but it does appear to be something of a Marmite proposition. This is not a straightforward revival, although it doesn’t (as far as I can tell) mess about with the text. Kopit gives Mrs. Stilson, his stroke victim, an interesting past: in her youth, she was an aviator and wing-walker in aerobatic shows. Accordingly, Abrahami uses flight as a visual metaphor to underline Mrs. Stilson’s disconnection from the world she’s known up until her stroke: in a bravura performance, Juliet Stevenson‘s Mrs. Stilson spends almost the entire show suspended on a wire, only sporadically making contact with the ground in the character’s more lucid moments.
In Kopit’s script, language fractures around Mrs. Stilson, so that there’s a gulf between what she’s trying to express and what she thinks she understands. The wire conceit/gimmick emphasises the character’s physical removal from the world she’s always lived in, in that it (admittedly not subtly) reinforces the point that a stroke can impose physical as well as mental constraints. For much of the performance, Mrs. Stilson is trapped outside the world the rest of the play’s characters inhabit – sometimes six inches above it, sometimes six feet, sometimes the full length of the stage away. Her mental contortions as she tries to piece together her fractured mind are expressed via aerial movement – swoops, somersaults and all the rest of it. It’s spectacular to watch, and breathtakingly effective – if it works for you, because this appears to be one of those stagings where you either love it or don’t buy it for a second.
As for Stevenson herself, she’s flawless, magnificent, superb – this is a remarkable actress giving as remarkable a performance as she’s ever given. The text doesn’t sentimentalise the character or the situation and neither does she, but Stevenson negotiates the script’s difficult language flawlessly, and creates a memorable, intense, deeply moving portrayal of a woman shattered by her inability to communicate. It’s an astonishing physical performance, too – negotiating seventy minutes of aerial movement, some of it quite acrobatic, is no mean feat (the movement is choreographed/created/set by Anna Morrisey, with flying effects from Freedom Flying), and the result adds a spectacular new dimension to a fascinating text.
It’s often beautiful to look at too, with Stevenson soaring and swooping through a surreal dreamscape created by Guy Hoare’s lights and Will Duke’s projections. Aside from Lorna Brown as a therapist, the supporting cast don’t have much to do – for at least two-thirds of its length, the play is essentially a fractured monologue – but they do it well enough, and Brown’s performance is lovely. It’s Stevenson’s show, though – for all the spectacular flourishes of Abrahami’s direction, the thing you’ll remember most clearly is her voice, trying to find a way back towards a world she recognises. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe her performance; if it works for you, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe Abrahami’s staging either – but it may not work for you. As I said, this appears to be a Marmite proposition. Lucky me, I like Marmite.