The Young Vic’s new production of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, the first one to take place in London for 30 years, is a perfectly-pitched production in which Juliet Stevenson’s performance as Emily Stilson, a pilot and wing-walker who suffers from aphasia after a stroke, unites with Natalie Abrahami’s striking directorial choices to make for a truly powerful and theatrical moment.
Abrahami has Stevenson suspended on wires almost throughout the whole show; and as she somersaults, twists, is thrust around and pulled, we gain a sense of how ineffectual Stilson feels, as she struggles to regain her linguistic memory. She is physically manipulated by others but also makes great efforts to control herself, and we observe images, projected upon thin layers of gossamer-like material onstage, which make clear to us her recollection of the feats she used to accomplish and the uncertainty before her now. We are always in no doubt that her experience is utterly removed from that of everyone else in her life. At one point, Stilson is sent a bouquet of flowers, the first vivid thing we have seen in the play, but it triggers a sensory overload within her, and as a result we see the colours from the flowers leak out onto the stage as if they were bleeding.
As Stilson, sometimes Stevenson’s voice rises to a confused, indignant squall; sometimes her right foot quivers; sometimes she is resolutely suspicious of everything around her but she always provokes our compassion. Lorna Brown, as Amy the therapist, enters as the second burst of colour into Stilson’s life, turning in a performance that shines with strength. Kelle Bryan, as Billy, if allowed any more chance, would absolutely have stolen the show by warming us so immediately to her character.
The wires from which Stevenson hangs are too obvious to ever be ignored, but in this way they serve to make us only more aware of Stilson’s difference from everyone around her, how at any point her hold over herself may be torn away again and the suspension makes for some beautiful, impossible shadows on the walls at either end of the stage. More than anything, Abrahami’s production, despite all of this intricacy, does not get in the way of Kopit’s script, which is lyrical, overwhelming and frantic. Stilson tries to articulate to Amy how certain objects, as she tries to recall them ‘remember [her] back’, and the line is full of potential and ambiguity. Do they remember her, respectively? Is ‘remember’ here playing the part of a transitive verb and so the objects bear her back into memory? The Young Vic has formed a production that lives up to the extraordinary qualities of Kopit’s work.
Wings is playing at the Young Vic until November 4
Photo: Johan Persson