For the most part, I try to avoid the use of superlatives when I’m writing about plays. They’re generally too strong, or bigger than what’s actually needed. Additionally, if you don’t use them then you can save them for when they’re completely necessary, and it seems that today is that day. With no desire to exaggerate, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is easily one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.
The wonder of this play lies in the fact that it starts with nothing. A plain grey surface surrounded by darkness, offering nothing but a blank canvas to build upon. From this, something new is created. A world, populated by a group of gay friends, is opened up to us, and we quite literally spend the day with them. They exist in a physical void that they and they alone fill with music, laughter and politics. Within this new universe, stories are told, but more importantly, questions are asked. What does it mean to be in a community, regardless of what that community may be? Do we owe it any responsibility? Can a person possess a trait while not identifying with the community surrounding that trait?
The Inheritance doesn’t really try to answer these (leaving them to stew instead), but perhaps there aren’t really any answers, or if there are we just don’t know them yet. Like many others, I was more than a little perturbed by the prospect of spending six hours and forty minutes in the same seat, watching the same story. Happily, this was unfounded. Lopez’s script flows with such life that it could almost be breathing, spun together in such a way that time really doesn’t matter. If it were any shorter, it wouldn’t have the room to grow like it does. While the language is virtually impossible to fault, it’s the act of sitting with these characters for so long that allows a genuine connection to form. By prolonging the storytelling, we’re able to witness so many small moments that bring real vivacity, drawing our separate worlds closer together.
While the concept of ‘inheritance’ in all its forms arises in various ways, the play’s title refers most directly to what gay people today pass on, and what is received from an earlier generation. Essentially, what does it mean to exist in a lineage rather than in isolation? How is the experience of being gay changed when one gains an understanding of how the world has found itself where it is?
It’s intriguing to watch how, in the absence of real older gay role models, more cultural figures step in – the most obvious of these being E. M. Forster. With his stories and words wrapped around every other element, he forms a very visible and very opinionated backbone, far more outwardly honest than Forster was ever able to be in his lifetime.
Stories are forever passed on, we learn as they evolve and this cycle continues forever. When this cycle is broken with the cutting short of a generation, it’s forced to rebuild itself. The Inheritance puts the process of understanding the past and the heart of understanding the present, and it’s in this intersection that its power lies. This is a play about hope and self identity, and about how any person at any time has to wrestle with the experience of being here and now. It’s a vast and ambitious undertaking, and it’s absolutely transcendent.
The Inheritance is playing the Noel Coward theatre until 19/01/19. For more information and tickets, see here.