One may as well begin with the reviews – or rather, with the drool-covered mash-notes several London critics have written to Matthew Lopez, the American playwright whose two-part adaptation of a very English novel appears to be turning into The Theatrical Event of the Year. In the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish tells us it’s “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. Even the least effusive reviews are mostly very, very good indeed. Lopez is all but unknown in this country, and this is quite a debut: the rest of the run is sold out bar a (very) few rush tickets, the production is certain to have a life beyond this initial run at the Young Vic, and word-of-mouth is generally very strong indeed. The Inheritance deserves the avalanche of superlatives, as far as I’m concerned – it’s a dazzling, audacious, breathtakingly clever piece of writing, expertly performed by an astonishing cast under the flawless direction of Stephen Daldry – but it also demands closer scrutiny than that avalanche of superlatives might suggest. There’s no question that this is a work of unusual brilliance, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without faults.
For a start, I don’t know how well it works if you aren’t at least a little bit familiar with E.M. Forster‘s Howards End, and with a few biographical details about Forster’s life and literary output. I’m sure the play can stand on its own, but I’m one of those people who always does their homework and I reread the novel the week before I saw it, which means I didn’t come to it clean. In terms of plot, Lopez’s play is more an extended riff on top of Forster’s novel than a direct translation of it; Eric and Toby, his surrogates for Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are lovers rather than siblings (there is no Tibby in the play). Eric works for a liberal/progressive NGO run by a friend, Toby is a one-hit-wonder YA novelist in the process of adapting his book for the stage. Lopez, it’s fair to say, takes the characteristics of Forster’s characters and amplifies them, so that Eric is thoroughly kind and decent and Toby is equally thoroughly self-absorbed; the play opens with a raucously funny story about Toby’s ignominious exit from a party hosted by wealthy friends Walter and Henry Wilcox (it involves Meryl Streep and the inevitable consequence of far too many Martinis), quickly follows it with Eric and Toby’s engagement, and then takes off on an epic journey through the post-AIDS landscape inhabited by New York’s gay community, with pit-stops at most (though not quite all) of the major plot points in Forster’s novel. There’s a misplaced umbrella, a thwarted inheritance, a meal at an only-for-carnivores restaurant at which the host orders for his guest of honour, a marriage, a country house, a meadow, a tree with teeth in the bark, and lots and lots of debate about art and politics and privilege, and a good number (though by no means all) of the piece’s laughs come from references to Forster’s novel. At the same time, Lopez puts E.M. Forster onstage as a character – “Morgan” – and keeps him front and centre in part one as a kind of writing coach, prompting the young men in Eric and Toby’s group of friends to revise their individual narratives and clarify the meaning behind their stories.
Despite the running time – the two parts together clock in at over six hours of stage time, over seven and a half hours including intermissions – the pace rarely flags, and you’ll need to work to keep up, because this is a piece that operates on several levels. It’s a gay Howards End AND an ongoing left-vs.-right political debate, a treatise on the tragic losses sustained by the gay community during the 1980s and 1990s, a moving eulogy for those lost, a lecture about the history of AIDS, a metatheatrical examination of the ways in which we construct our lives into narratives, a play about what each generation gives to and takes from the next, a meditation on the intersection(s) between love and politics and sex, and a comedy of (sometimes very bad) manners. Usually it’s several of those things in the same scene. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride, superbly sustained through the full length of the piece, and it’s well worth the effort, but there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in, and the sheer breadth (and, let’s face it, length) of the piece, the constant shifts in focus between complex, intertwined plot strands mean The Inheritance is inevitably a somewhat dizzying theatrical experience. For some, I suspect, it will gain an extra dimension if you see both parts back-to-back on the same day (which is what I did); others, certainly, will be glad of an extended break between the two halves.
And the writing, certainly, is not unimpeachable, although that shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Lopez’s achievement here is anything less than remarkable. The biggest fault, probably, is also a fault of the source novel: Lopez’s characters, like Forster’s, exist in an insular, seemingly self-contained (and self-absorbed) world in which interlopers are not always treated kindly. This is an (almost) entirely affluent, privileged (notwithstanding the profound sense of loss underpinning the play), white strata of society. There are two actors from visible minorities – out of a cast of fourteen – on the stage in a play set in Manhattan whose first scene takes place somewhere around mid-2015, and we don’t encounter a woman until midway through the final act of part two. This is a play inhabited very nearly exclusively by a clique of gay men who all have similar backgrounds, and who (almost) all trade in the same cultural and political references. Lopez’s writing is undeniably virtuosic, and he’s created an engaging, funny, sometimes very deeply moving collection of characters, but this is still, for better or worse, a play about people who mostly only ever talk to people like themselves. Over more than six hours of stage time, given the scope of the social history Lopez is trying to navigate, that is an issue. AIDS was never simply an upper-middle-class disease, and New York’s gay community always encompassed every point on the social spectrum – but here, the two black actors in the cast play relatively minor roles, and the one character who isn’t middle-class or wealthier is a more-or-less homeless prostitute.
It’s also fair to point out that Lopez, all the way through, relies on third-person narration in the manner of a third-person novel’s omniscient voice, with characters stepping outside of scenes to tell us the story. It’s not as if this has never been done before, and it’s not as if you can’t build a successful piece of theatre around this technique (step forward, Lin-Manuel Miranda), but this is a very, very long two-part play. It contains a lot of plot, and a surprising amount of that plot is narrated rather than dramatised, told rather than shown. That isn’t going to be a problem for everyone – but if you don’t like that technique, or even if you’re ambivalent about it, sitting through six hours of it might prove to be a slog.
It’s bold of Lopez to stop the action in its tracks, more than once, to allow characters to let rip with a full-blown political debate, and it’s also bold of him to make the most unpleasantly self-righteous character in the biggest, most significant debate scene an angry, passionate left/liberal/progressive-leaning Clinton supporter, and to strenuously avoid making his billionaire Republican opponent – yes, Henry Wilcox, the only character in The Inheritance to take their name directly from his analogue character in Forster’s novel – into either a stereotypical Log Cabin Republican or a Mitt Romney clone. There’s a plot-related reason why Jason – the liberal character – is so rude in his reaction to the revelation that Henry Wilcox has donated to the (then-current) Republican Presidential candidate, but the debate – as a debate – would be less predictable if Jason attempted to refute Henry’s arguments rather than simply condemning them out of hand. It’s a fine, fiery scene, and it plays like gangbusters in the hands of Michael Marcus and John Benjamin Hickey, but Lopez’s handling of the politics behind the characters is noticeably less smart here than it is through most of the rest of the play.
And then there’s the E.M. Forster conundrum. Lopez’s play is tied very closely to its source material, even though it sometimes departs from it very significantly, and there’s an immensely touching essay in the programme in which Lopez talks about his love of a novel set in a world that is quite sharply different from the small Florida Panhandle town where he grew up. Putting Forster himself onstage proves to be a triumph; it therefore seems not only churlish but actually disrespectful to allow, in one of the play’s debates, Lopez’s young, comfortably middle-class, privileged characters, (almost) all of whom exist in the kind of monied/western/bourgeois-bohemian/liberal bubble in which LGBTQ rights have largely been embraced by the mainstream, to turn on Morgan for not publishing Maurice during his lifetime. Or rather, the accusation is perhaps fair enough, and so is the thinking behind it – it’s not impossible that the publication of an unabashedly homosexual love story from as major a figure as Forster might have helped pave the way for wider, earlier acceptance of LGBTQ rights by the public at large – but it seems churlish and disrespectful for Lopez not to permit Morgan to defend his decision. It also arguably is an indication of the potential pitfalls of an American writer putting words into the mouth of a real English literary figure, because I doubt a British writer would have failed to make the point that to publish the novel in 1914 with the ending Forster intended would quite possibly have put Forster in prison. At that time, it would have been publishable in Britain only if it had ended in the imprisonment or suicide of one or other (or both) of the two central characters; for a mainstream fiction press to publish a homosexual love story with a happy ending would have been more or less unthinkable, and for Forster to pursue publication of the novel would have required reserves of strength and bravery and self-sacrifice that, frankly, are not evident among most of Lopez’s characters in The Inheritance. It’s probably the least sure-footed passage in the whole of the play.
The ending of part two, as well, could stand a little sharpening. Partly that’s because the ending of part one – an equivalent of the scene in the novel where Margaret first sees the meadow at Howards End – is so beautifully written and so exquisitely moving that it’s very difficult for the ending of part two not to suffer at least a little in comparison, but partly it’s because we’ve all seen the final episode of Six Feet Under and some of us have seen (or at least read) Terrence McNally‘s Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the specific narrative gimmick Lopez pulls out in his final sequence has been done before, and done better.
Questions of milieu and the (nearly) all-male cast (I mean, really – do none of these people ever speak to a woman?) aside, though, those few hiccups amount to no more than a couple of scenes out of a mostly splendid piece of writing… although having said that, there is very little in theatre (and film) that isn’t improved by editing, and that’s certainly the case here. I don’t mean a hacksaw, but each of the play’s six acts could comfortably stand to lose a few minutes (by the time I saw it last week, part two had already lost ten minutes or so of running time from the timings reported while it was in previews), and in the second part the audience really needs more than a five-minute breather between the second and third acts.
Not that your attention will wander, because while the writing is not entirely unimpeachable, Stephen Daldry’s production is just about perfect. Elegantly staged on Bob Crowley’s rectangular white platform set – a blank page, if you like – against a black backdrop which occasionally parts to reveal another room, or a tree, or a model of the upstate house at the centre of the plot, Daldry’s staging is strikingly minimalist and, as lit by Jon Clark, often quite beautiful. He’s done, too, a superb job of rendering Lopez’s complicated, sprawling, multilayered plot with absolute clarity. More than anything else, he’s drawn wonderful performances from his cast. Kyle Soller’s Eric is an astonishing six-hour tour-de-force – Eric is our way in to the play, the most wholly sympathetic character onstage, and Soller’s work is simply stunning. Without grandstanding, and without ever chewing the scenery (not that there’s much scenery to chew), Soller provides a quietly moving portrayal of a genuinely good, kind man who slowly comes to understand that he must use his privilege to help others. Andrew Burnap is equally good as the self-absorbed/charmingly obnoxious writer Toby, and when we’re (finally) shown Toby’s inner demons (after being told about them for five whole acts) Burnap doesn’t overplay the moment. Samuel H. Levine is mesmerising as the play’s stand-ins for Leonard and Jacky Bast – Adam, an overprivileged, culturally-undereducated would-be actor, and Leo, a rent boy who (we are told) looks remarkably similar to Adam. Paul Hilton is simply lovely as Morgan, and as Walter, the play’s equivalent of Ruth Wilcox. John Benjamin Hickey’s Henry Wilcox, a billionaire gay Republican who finds himself becoming closer to Eric after Walter’s death, is a far more compelling figure than the Henry Wilcox in Forster’s novel; Hickey is very moving indeed as a character whose losses during the early years of the AIDS epidemic were so profound that he’s been left emotionally crippled by what amounts to a form of PTSD, but he also makes Henry’s growing relationship with Eric absolutely believable, and he and Lopez, to their enormous credit, avoid more or less all the obvious Republican! Billionaire! clichés (which, to return to an earlier point, is why it’s startling that the writing for Jason #1, the Committed Progressive among Lopez’s cast of characters here, is so jarringly one-note). The supporting performances – all of them – are excellent; everyone apart from Hickey, Soller, Burnap, and Vanessa Redgrave plays more than one role; this is an ensemble performance, and the performances right across the ensemble are flawless.
That leaves Vanessa Redgrave, whose appearance is held back until almost halfway through the show’s final act. She’s frail and fragile and heartbreaking, and very quiet as a kind of Ruth Coker Burks figure – a woman who rejected her gay son while he was healthy, and then devoted her life to providing palliative care for AIDS patients as a kind of penance after his death. Given her connection to the Merchant-Ivory film of the source novel, Redgrave’s appearance more or less amounts to stunt-casting, but she has remarkable presence; you may occasionally wonder whether the character is overcome with grief or the actress is struggling to remember the next line, but she supplies a great deal of the final act’s emotional force. Lopez gives her character what amounts to an extended monologue about the sickness and death of her son, and in Redgrave’s hands it becomes a masterclass in the value of stillness onstage. It’s a phenomenal performance, and a late highlight in a phenomenal piece of theatre.
So, yes, those reviews – where we began – were absolutely justified…but. The thing about reviews like that is that they create impossible expectations, and also, sometimes, a sense that the work is somehow above criticism by regular mortals. To be absolutely clear, The Inheritance is a staggeringly talented piece of writing. This is an extraordinary, dazzling, wonderful play given a flawless production. Several reviews have compared it directly to Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America; it withstands the comparison, and that is very, very high praise indeed. It is going to have a life, probably a very significant life, beyond this production (although sorry, Dominic Cavendish, it is simply too soon to say whether it’s the most significant new American play of the century so far). Kyle Soller deserves every award out there for his performance, and Lopez deserves every award out there for a script whose highs are spectacularly high. Of course it’s a must-see, and probably a must-read too – but while you’ll be thrilled, moved, and thoroughly dazzled by The Inheritance, you’ll also find yourself picking holes in it for days afterwards.