Sweeping in scope, yet intimate and highly personal in detail, Matthew Lopez’s masterwork The Inheritance balances humour, history and heartbreak to haunting effect.
Seen in one day, the two parts of The Inheritance, each 3 hours and 20 minutes in duration, make for an unforgettable day in the theatre. Premiering at the Young Vic in 2018, the hit play transferred quickly to the West End, and the New York setting means that Broadway is surely next.
Inspired by E. M. Forster’s Howards End, Lopez took the very human characters of the great literary work and ran with them, updating the work to present day New York with compelling flair. The novel’s key plot points remain, expanded upon with significant reflection on current and recent gay themes, with particular focus on the devastation wrought by the HIV virus.
Sitting together as they attempt to write, a group of Young Men is visited by the spectre of E. M. Forster (known as Morgan). Inspired by Morgan’s classic opening line, “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister,” Young Man 1 posits “One may as well begin with Toby’s voicemails to his boyfriend” and the story is underway.
The unique style sees Morgan continue to aid the writing and the Young Men take on the various roles in the story, bringing a lively improvised feel to the early scenes. The dialogue contains a large contingent of the descriptive text usually found only in novels. In line with this, Morgan is quick to anger if characters speak their subtext aloud. Bringing to mind the townsfolk’s sacrifice of the The Narrator to the Giant in Into the Woods, so too do the Young Men eventually dispense with Morgan so as to continue the story themselves.
The Schlegel sisters of Howards End are replaced here with lovers Eric Glass (the noble one) and Toby Darling (the beautiful one). The actor playing Morgan also plays Walter, the equivalent to Ruth Wilcox, owner of the upstate farmhouse which becomes the literal object of the play’s title when Walter passes away. Walter used the house to care for dying men, and can prophetically see a similar good in Eric. Bearing the same name as his literary counterpart, property developer Henry Wilcox treats Walter’s pencilled will in the same way as in the novel.
In an interesting move, the equivalent character to penurious clerk Leonard Bast, befriended by the sisters, is split in two, played by the same actor. In alignment with the two plays written by Toby, Adam is the privileged Loved Boy, a role he goes on to play on Broadway, while male prostitute Leo is Lost Boy, the title of Toby’s more honest later work.
Master director Stephen Daldry creates an intense yet easy energy amongst the ensemble cast of 13, ensuring that the early improvised feel does not come across as forced. Playing out over at total of six acts, Daldry conducts the levels of focus and spirit so as to conjure a series of highly moving climaxes.
With a very clear focus on the actors, Bob Crowley’s stark design simply features a white platform in front of inky blackness, with the occasional glimpse of special set pieces in the rear. Top marks to dialect coach William Conacher for once again proving that British actors can do American accents far more readily than the other way around.
Set firmly in the present, The Inheritance includes heated debate on US politics, discussion of the loss of gay identity through mainstream subsumption of gay culture, depiction of both positive and self-destructive aspects of gay life, and makes a very strong case for the need to tell the story of gay history. Espoused by characters the audience quickly comes to embrace, Lopez ensures these views derive organically from the action rather than being shoehorned in for their own sake.
The all male play is finally given a female voice in the final sequence, as Vanessa Redgrave (portrayer of Ruth Wilcox in the film of Howards End) makes her entrance as Margaret, caretaker of the farmhouse. Redgrave brings ready warmth and irreplaceable maturity to the stage, and yet the extent of her role is something of a struggle, bringing up a new story when we really just want to focus on the outcome of the central characters at this late stage.
Paul Hilton gives Morgan a mannered patter, extending this to the sensitive fragility of Walter. John Benjamin Hickey portrays Henry Wilcox’s obtusely gruff demeanour with just the right amount of spark so as to convey the attraction the man compels in those around him.
Samuel H. Levine plays the twin characters of actor Adam and rentboy Leo with deft flair, even giving a highly convincing scene where the two meet and converse.
Eric Glass is the beating heart of the play, and Kyle Soller succeeds in making the young man as interesting as he is kind, which is no mean feat when playing the good guy. Looking every bit as attractive as Toby Darling is intended to be, Andrew Burnap dazzling conveys the play’s biggest arc, ultimately breaking hearts with the inevitability of his tragedy.
A landmark play for the ages, The Inheritance is theatre at its most affecting.
The Inheritance was reviewed 1.15pm / 7.15pm Saturday 5 January 2019 at Noël Coward Theatre, London 1.15pm, 7.15pm Saturday 5 January 2019 where it plays until 19 January 2019.
Photos: Marc Brenner
I’m a Howard’s End tragic so this outing sounds phenomenal Simon. Let’s hope it gets picked up for an Australian season.
Have always appreciated Howards End, but extra glad that I watched the 2017 miniseries on the plane on the way over. There are even more details than I have described here, and being aware of these connections adds greatly to the enjoyment of the play (which is already incredible!).
Fingers crossed that an Australian state company picks up The Inheritance for 2020./