Tung Recommends: The Inheritance at The Young Vic

Photo credit: Simon Annand

I’m not going to lie to you, 10 hours is a long time to spend at the theatre no matter which way you look at it. ’Lol why?’ was a popular question after my flatmates discovered I’d spent literally the entire day watching Matthew Lopez's new play  The Inheritance, as was a tentative ‘…are you okay?’ To be honest, the answer at that precise moment was no. I felt like I’d poured liquid cement into my brain and I knew that if I didn’t engage in a series of deep lunges before bed I was probably going to develop a pulmonary embolism. But, when a friend asked incredulously, ‘was it worth it?’ I didn’t have to think for long. Headache and potential blood clots aside, the answer was an emphatic ‘yes.’

The Inheritance is a narrative descendant of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End (one of my personal favourites) and references his posthumously published semi-autobiographical gay love story Maurice, which was one of the first books of its kind I’d read while I was at college. I feel like if I’d actually seen Angels In America — another great American two-parter which deals with queer identity and the AIDs crisis —  there’d be a lot to say about the connections between them. As it stands, I know just enough to have appreciated a swift cameo by a fancy-dress angel in Part Two, and that’s about as far as I can go with that. Let’s breeze past it…

Like Maurice, The Inheritance is a story of queer love and, like Howard’s End, it focuses on a central narrative of a literal thwarted inheritance of a beautiful house. Even if it was simply a retelling of Howard’s End, its characters reimagined as (mostly) gay men and it’s central love story focused on the rocky relationship between a capitalist individualist (in HE a British colonialist businessman, here an American Republican billionaire) and a liberal leftie (in HE an idealistic intellectual, here a Hillary campaigner) I’d still have had a ten out of ten time. 

But The Inheritance is not just a retelling of Howard’s End. Not at all. The titular inheritance is so much more than text. It’s that of three generations of men, each of their stories built on the foundations laid by the last. There’s Forster himself (played beautifully by Paul Hilton) who was born into a world in which publication of his bravest book didn’t seem like an option for fear of arrest. Then there’s Walter and Henry, a couple who meet in the 80s, and whose relationship begins to disintegrate when their conflicting attitudes towards AIDs victims drives a wedge between them. Finally, there are the millennials — Eric, Toby and a close-knit group of friends who know how much they owe to members of the gay community who have come before them, and many of whom pay it forward by joining the fight against the rise of Trumpian alt-right politics.

Bob Crowley’s super-simple stage design — a neutral plinth rises to create a table, a stage, a garden, or lowers to create a swimming-pool-cum-hedonistic-hell-pit — is an ideal blank page for a play that interweaves the stories of one generation into another. History repeats itself over and over, and Stephen Daldry’s direction, which takes care to make that circularity explicit through shared movement and repeated tableau, is all the more effective thanks to the sparse design. When, for example, the opening scene — a growing entanglement of limbs, a tableau of community —  is recalled in a later one in which the ghosts of so many men lost to AIDs flood the stage I sobbed and sobbed.

And the crying didn’t end there. Not nearly. Thanks to the sheer length of The Inheritance there’s a lot of time for character development. The moment the floodgates really opened, though, was with the entrance of Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Margaret Avery, a spectral guardian of the house that should be inherited by Eric. When she tells the story of her lost child, it’s almost too much to bear. It’s a really remarkable performance by a truly remarkable actor, and her presence is a pleasing, knowing wink to another of Forster’s inheritors — the 1992 Merchant Ivory version of Howard’s End in which Redgrave plays Ruth Wilcox.

It has to be said, though, that although Redgrave plays her part faultlessly, her presence throws into stark relief a significant absence. She is the only female character and is only present in the last thirty minutes or so of a seven and a half hour play. I understand that this is a play specifically about male homosexuality, but need Lopez have totally erased the existence of these men’s mothers, sisters and female friends? I’m not convinced that, in a play of this length, there wasn’t the time or space to adequately develop a few more female characters.

So yeah, The Inheritance isn’t perfect. It’s sprawling, it sometimes gets away from itself, and it veers a bit too sharply into sentimentality at the end. Strangely, the lack of women didn’t affect me all that much during the performance, but afterwards, as I started thinking about Forster’s own legacy, I couldn’t help but feel sad that the story had been scrubbed clean of the kind of full-hearted, flawed women like Margaret and Helen Schlegel. That said, Lopez does swap their radical story of love without borders for another important one. In Howard’s End Margaret’s creed is ‘only connect’ and I’ve got to say, thanks to Lopez’s writing, Daldry’s direction and the blindingly brilliant cast, I left the Young Vic having had one of the most connected theatre experiences I’ve ever known.

Grab tickets to The Inheritance here