Review - The Inheritance at the Young Vic
A week ago, I spent nearly eight hours re-visiting the National's lavish and exhilarating production of Tony Kushner's 1990s epic Angels in America on Broadway, a play that swirls, swoops and swaggers over a moment of great crisis for the gay community in America as it chronicles the emerging AIDS epidemic in the previous decade. And now back in London, I spent over seven hours at the Young Vic, watching another gay epic, The Inheritance, that picks up where Angels left off and examines the personal impacts on a generation of gay men today of the lingering effects of that crisis.
Matthew Lopez's intense theatrical two-parter is like a softer, gentler, sadder version of Angels in America; less driven by fury and theatrics, but with even more heart and aching tenderness.
At the end of the second part of Angels, a character famously says, "We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins."
You could say that with this play The Great Work Continues. But Lopez's play, that spans the night of the last US election and the election of Donald Trump, is also bang up-to-date - and includes a gay Republican billionaire who has voted in his own self-interest by supporting him. Lopez's liberal-leaning play dares to portray that alternative world view sympathetically.
It is just one of the signs of dramatic maturity and balance in a play full of convincing feeling and legible fears, set in a landscape that embraces both the privileged and the dispossessed. HIV/AIDS, of course, did not discriminate; and it's still with us, though it is no longer necessarily a terminal condition.
But its impact remains profound, not just on a generation of survivors, but on who and what we've lost. As these experiences pass into history, it is thrilling to see a younger gay playwright wrestling with that past and what it means for the gay community. He does so with a play that puts its entirely and specifically gay milieu centre stage; there's no apologetic attempt to try to speak to a wider constituency. An older straight couple I know told me that watching it felt like they were in a foreign land; though they were gripped nonetheless.
Watching it is like bingeing on a particularly good TV box set; it's a play that tells several overlapping stories about a group of gay friends and lovers in modern Manhattan. These include two key long-term couples, who also happen to live in the same Upper West Side mansion block: Eric and his aspiring writer boyfriend Toby, who've been together for seven years and have a rent-controlled apartment there; and Henry and Walter, who've been together for 36 years.
They're overseen and observed by a writer Morgan, who gently nudges the narrative in alternative directions: he's the authorial voice of EM Forster, whose Howard's End inspired Lopez in the writing of this. It is the gift and tribute of one gay man to another - another theme of the play.
Stephen Daldry's masterly production, mostly performed on a bare wooden platform of a set that occasionally opens up to other vistas in Bob Crowley's beautiful design, is stunningly moving. I wept copiously at the end of both parts; it invites and demands an emotional response. But the performances of Daldry's almost entirely all-male cast are not sentimental - every character feels utterly inhabited and palpable. Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap as the younger couple and Broadway actor John Benjamin Hickey and Paul Hilton as the older one are tremendous. And as an icing on the cake, stage veteran Vanessa Redgrave makes a late appearance in the second play as the sole female character - the mother of a man who died of AIDS at the age of 25 - that pierces the heart.