Young Vic, London – until 19 May 2018
One may as well begin with a Barry Manilow quote. Back in 2006, the great man was on The X Factor and he was asked, what is the secret to a great song, and he replied that you’ve got to coax the audience to put their hearts into your hands. And then you break them.
And that, for me, is the most perfect way to describe the magnificent The Inheritance, an impressive play from Matthew Lopez that examines the tangled lives of a close group of gay men living in contemporary New York, charting their ups and downs, their laughs and their tragedies – all through a whopping seven-hour running time – using their dramas to draw us in to an aching finale that causes us to consider the very meaning and purpose of life itself.
But before we look at history and our place in the world, we must first look at ourselves. And that’s very much how this play starts. Only not quite as simply as that for, you see, we start in what feels like a writers’ group in New York for gay men. Only it’s led by EM Forster (erroneously called ‘EM Foster’ in the Young Vic programme, but never mind). Yes, that’s the one. The one that died some 40 years before the time period in which this play is set, but just go with it.
Forster (Paul Hilton) is surrounded by a group of gay men living in present-day New York, encouraging them to excavate themselves, to use characters as a vehicle to look inside and contemplate who they are.
We are in a ‘play within a play’ territory here but discernible plots quickly emerges, one focused around the crumbling relationship of Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), a thirty-something gay man living in the Upper West Side, and his charismatic but tricky partner, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), a wannabe writing superstar who is adapting his newly published novel for the stage.
The focus for the men, initially, is very much on the present as they play out the dramas and dinner parties of their daily lives, but the advent of Trump causes them to reappraise their belief that the battle for equality has been won and so begins a journey that compels them to examine how the fight for equality was won – and the price that was paid along the way.
Inevitably this includes a reckoning for the men as their increasing awareness about the past gives them pause to consider that entire generation of possible mentors, artists and activists wiped out by the AIDS virus. Men whose struggles and sacrifices – the inheritance they had passed to the next generation so they could live more freely – are becoming largely forgotten, a relic of history.
Now, Forster plays a significant metaphorical role here too as the overall plot and arc of The Inheritance follows, in a large part, Howards End. I haven’t read that novel so that doesn’t mean much to me so I’m afraid you can’t look here for the knowing cross-references and nods towards this famous text. But as I was watching the drama unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which is also centred around the friendship between four gay men in New York, as their friendships forge and fall apart over the years. Similar territory but what Matthew Lopez’s work has over Hanya’s is the humour.
The Inheritance is a hilarious as it is heart-breaking. Much of the humour admittedly does focus on Toby whose narcissism and vanity are played to pinpoint perfection by Andrew Burnap, especially as he offsets this with an increasing clarity over the troubled mind that lies behind the mask. But the chorus are wonderful too. Their snaps and perfectly-timed glib responses lift this show. And scenes of screwball hilarity keep a vibrant momentum to proceedings.
But there is also deep discussion too. What do gay men today owe to the generations who went before them, those who battled against societal shaming as well as the AIDS virus? Must gay men mourn for those lost forever, or is it possible to criticise them for their lack of bravery in collective action? And what exactly does it mean to be gay today in a world where men can get married and have children and be as ordinary as a married heterosexual couple?
Now, as a straight woman I can only ever be an observer in these debates (!) but one that I hear time and again, and one that is included here also, is what does it mean to be gay now? The men on the stage battle back and forth on whether ‘now’ only refers to sexuality, whereas the ghosts of the past that hover around them show the extent to which being gay meant being marginalised, which in turn meant the creation and investment in safe spaces, a clearly defined community, and even a community with its own language, terms and rules.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that constant battle between wanting to have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, but in the process losing the unique community where these gay men thrived and survived. What we lose and what we gain.
And it is this increasing awareness of how much gay men owe today owe to the past that is the hallmark of this play. The ghosts of the past are always there, and we have so much still to learn from what went before, and what we must do to overcome stigmatism and ostracism, even from within the gay community itself.
I adored The Inheritance. It moved me to the core. It made me laugh and it made me cry. Twice. But there’s no ignoring the fact that this are some intersectionality issues here.
No play can be everything to everybody, that much is true. But this feels very much like a play by the educated, middle class urban elite for the educated, middle class urban elite. Each actor on stage seems to fit that bill perfectly. And the universal toned physiques on stage don’t help with representation or body issues either, especially given the pressures on gay men to fit certain physical stereotypes.
I’d like to have seen more variety in the chorus – yes there were two Black men, but more could and should have been done in including more men of colour, appearance and backgrounds. After all, New York is a hugely diverse city so there was the opportunity for far greater breadth in diversity. I mean, the writer himself has Puerto Rican heritage but this doesn’t get much of a look in here.
But though this play is fantastic – and I will get back to why it is so wonderful in a minute – it does highlight yet again that when it comes to telling LGBTQ stories on stage, the scene is dominated by middle class gay men, and often white (all the principal parts on stage are played by White men). And this does get frustrating on the macro level, but even in the minutiae here, such as when the older gay male characters continually refer to stonewall, you are acutely aware of the erasure of trans activists and gay women.
We have a great big yawning collection of missing narratives when it comes to LGBTQ voices in theatre. Just as an FYI.
But, like I said, a play can’t be everything to everyone, though director Stephen Daldry could have done more with what he had. But this aside, The Inheritance is an extraordinary accomplishment. Stephen’s direction is so taut and delicate that this play feels like it is dancing along, its tragedies and triumphs unravelling at the perfect speed. Never once did it feel like it was dragging – which is remarkable given the length.
But this play is, above all, affecting. I felt a very different person at the end of Part Two from the one who sat in her seat at the beginning of Part One. There is a literal inheritance at stake in this play, yes, but it is the metaphorical ones that hit me hardest. As, of course, was intended.
And though this story explicitly follows the challenges of gay men, I couldn’t help thinking of how this is true of all oppressed groups. How much do I owe the nameless, faceless women of previous generations who battled for rights that I take for granted, and for the benefits that I have today? How many were sacrificed, damaged or even died so that I can live freely?
No fight for oppressed groups is ever over, but this play leaves us acknowledging that we do owe a debt to previous generations, one that we can never repay. So, how do we respect this? How do we pay it back? By living our lives with our hearts wide open. By living our life without shame. We live our lives for those who could not live their own. And we offer love and compassion to all who stand alongside us. We offer solidarity and offer ourselves as supporters and mentors for the next generation. And we always move forward but never forgetting what has been left behind.