A moving portrayal of Howards End seen through the lens of a 21st century queer narrative.
LONDON – For the generation of gay men who came after the AIDs crisis of the 1990s, how could they even begin to understand the horror of what those who came before them went through?
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance opens on a similar note, asking not how to convey the gravity and impact of such a horrific time, but quite simply how to begin a story. Utilizing E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End as its basis, Lopez’s epic, seven hour play then seeks to answer how it is gay men, who cannot naturally produce progeny of their own, can pass on their knowledge, stories, and form families and communities of their own.
While boasting a milieu of characters, The Inheritance primarily focuses on gay New York couple Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) and the various people they become intertwined with during and after their relationship, with each half of the couple developing in increasingly different ways as they go their separate paths. As daunting as it seems to even watch such a production in its entirety, each part is helpfully, furnished with two short intermissions that make sitting through it akin to binge-watching a Netflix series. Through this, Lopez is more than capable of bringing out modern horrors, from the election of Trump as POTUS, to the terrifying, gross debauchery of a bathhouse orgy (and the fear of contracting something terminal), to betrayal and emotional devastation, pure and simple. These are episodes that leave us reeling, yet Lopez is always careful to rein us back in again with the anchor of hope, be it the promise of love in the air, or a safe haven waiting in the country.
Episodic in nature, Lopez’s script is illuminating, his language flowing between the conversational and deeply resonant, and a worthy 2010s spiritual successor to Tony Kushner’s equally epic (and lengthy) Angels in America. The characters we’re introduced to in The Inheritance are fiercely relatable to the modern left-wing queer, from a combative liberal to an unapologetically loud drama queen confident in his identity (though, one does take issue with the overbearing ‘whiteness’ of the principal characters).
Taking on a decidedly minimalist staging, set design is almost non-existent, with characters performing on a blank white platform for the majority of the play. When it does decide to reveal elements of Bob Crowley’s set design, combined with Paul Englishby’s soundtrack at some of the most crucial moments of the play, the result is resounding, poignant and breaks even the hardest of hearts.
With its lack of design elements, The Inheritance is heavily reliant on its ensemble to deliver strong performances to carry the play, its casting pitch perfect in every sense of the word. Kyle Soller as Eric is a protagonist one cannot help but feel for, a victim of circumstance as his life comes crashing down and constantly forced and re-shaped time and time again. As his confidante, Paul Hilton as Walter delivers what is singularly one of the most powerful monologues in the entire play, while Walter’s partner, the right-wing, sporty and for the most part, ‘straight-acting’ Henry Wilcox is portrayed with gusto and a disarmingly masculine charm by John Benjamin Hickey.
Meanwhile, Andrew Burnap dives headfirst into his role as Toby Darling, embracing him in all his insecurities and faux confidence, creating a performance that is as tragic as it is mesmerising to watch him spiral into a complete mess, whereas Samuel H. Levine shifts between ‘child of privilege’ Adam to homeless rent-boy Leo in the blink of an eye, using only his physicality and voice to make the immediate transition.
But beyond the performance and staging, what makes The Inheritance so quintessential as an event in and of itself is its currency as a play for the here and now, deftly capturing the energy and lifestyle of the modern, metropolitan New Yorker of today through his description of key landmarks. The Inheritance focuses on what it means to be gay today, and how, with no means of having children, does one form families and pass on things that matter? For Lopez, while there are no clear answers, The Inheritance represents the ongoing search for that safe space and a means to feel at home in the world, and one is constantly left adrift as his characters navigate the tumultuous lines of desire underscoring the play, be it for money, people or a time gone by. But anchored by its strong direction from Daldry and characters we grow to love and know over the 7 hours, Lopez almost always hits a home run when it comes down to his most crucial moments, rendering our hearts asunder at least once in every segment.
Playing with means of magic realism (E.M. Forster himself makes occasional appearances), the power of literature to transcend generations, and the pain of the past, transfigured by time to become nothing more than a memory, The Inheritance is a pressing portrait of gay life in the 21st century in all its achingly beautiful brokenness. Bringing us to highs with its on the nose humour and leaving one a wreck with the melodrama, Lopez’s play is edge of your seat theatre that fully deserves its place as one of the great queer dramas of the new millennium, and a reminder that sometimes, the best way to honour the past is to live for the present.
Photo Credit: Simon Annand
Performance attended 6/12/18 (Part One) and 7/12/18 (Part Two)
The Inheritance plays till 19th January 2018 at the Noel Coward Theatre, London. Tickets available here