Some personal thoughts on The Inheritance

One may as well start with the Young Vic’s emails to its mailing list (my God, how many articles about The Inheritance have started with variations on that line).

Back in 2017 when Angels In America (starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield) was playing at the National Theatre, the Young Vic was announcing the last few shows under the leadership of David Lam. Listed was another two-part epic about gay men in New York, this one by, to me at least, a then unknown writer and to be directed by Stephen Daldry.

The Inheritance at the Young Vic

“Fuck me, does every gay play need to be in two parts now?” said a friend as we stared at the poster image of generically beautiful young men laying around each other.

I booked tickets (for £25/$30USD per play), a week or so into previews, mainly to support queer works, but also because the Young Vic has consistently been one of the best theatres in London. But I did wonder if I really needed another gay epic in my life.

The cast was announced – peaking with Vanessa Redgrave, a guy from The Good Wife and that guy from Poldark. No, not THAT guy, one of the other ones.

Nine months after first hearing about this play, on Monday March 26th 2018, I saw The Inheritance Part One for the first time.

Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey. Photo by Simon Annand

Sparsely staged, wordy, earnest… at the end of act one I stood in the bar of the theatre with my best friend shell-shocked with red, puffy eyes. It was an emotional kick to the stomach unlike anything I’ve felt in a theatre before. The bar was buzzing as groups of total strangers turned to each other to discuss what had just happened, breaching every ounce of British theatre etiquette. Weirdly, a community was forming, if only for a moment. At the end of act three (at close to 11pm) I was all cried out.

The next evening we returned for Part Two, thrilled to see what would be coming our way. This time we were armed with tissues and a stiff drink.

Part Two was raw and Vanessa Redgrave kept us on the edge of our seats. That evening I walked out elated in a way theatre has not made me feel in over a decade. There was something about this show that grabbed me, and I didn’t quite know why.

The Inheritance sits in a personal sweet spot of literature, theatre, New York, money, architecture, culture and an aspirational gay life (full of rich boyfriends, artistic genius friends, Fire Island escapes and Manhattan townhouses – oh, and great knitwear – The Inheritance revived my love of a good cardigan too).

The Inheritance Young Vic cast, photo by Simon Annand

Eric is my idealised self.

Toby is every beautiful boy I’ve had an unrequited/destructive crush on.

Henry is the man I wish I knew.

Morgan is the mentor I wish I had.

I have been Jasper, Tristan and the Jasons to other people.

I’ve been to parties with Tucker.

I’ve been comforted by Margaret.

On the May 2nd 2018, I took a day off work and watched The Inheritance again (twice the original price for almost identical seats), both plays in one day. This time it was different. The audience was buzzing from the beginning. Part Two was smoother, things had subtly changed. I wept again. Even on a second viewing, knowing where the punches were coming from, I still found myself emotionally winded. Going through the journey in one sitting was an emotional marathon (just as Angels In America had been), but definitely my preferred way of seeing the show.

Poolside at the Axel Madrid

By this time the Young Vic run had completely sold out, the critics were raving and there were queues for returns. The play text had been published and I grabbed a copy. A West End transfer was announced. I told two of my best friends (theatre-curious people, but not addicts like myself) that they had no choice but to book so we could all see it together. It’s a play about community and I wanted my community to experience it with me.

That summer I spent a holiday sitting by the rooftop pool of a gay hotel in Madrid reading the playtext in the sun while instagrammers staged photoshoots with their cocktails. My sunglasses and occasional dips in the pool hid my tears.

The Inheritance West End

On the October 27th 2018 we all arrived at the Noël Coward Theatre, along with the likes of Anna Wintour, Bill Nighy, Rebel Wilson and other ‘names’. Another full day of theatre – my third full viewing. The show had changed again – it was broader, playing to the bigger house. I missed the intimacy of the Young Vic. It was now a bit camper in places, more melodramatic in others. My heart broke a little as this lamb of a play that was so unsure on its feet six months before, was now strutting under the bright West End lights.

I was worried that I’d potentially over-hyped it all and was paranoid my friends would hate me for forcing seven hours of theatre on them. I half-watched the show, and half-watched them. They loved it.

Then a friend and I decided we wanted to be there for the final performance. Some frantically purchased tickets saw me watching Part One again on World AIDS Day, and Part Two at the final London performance – this time the tickets were five-times more expensive than when I first saw it.

The final bow of The Inheritance on the West End

The Inheritance is quite possibly the greatest play I have ever seen. It will be hard for anything to beat it. It has become a touch-stone. What makes The Inheritance so important to me? What is it that has me flying to New York to see it again, this time with an Australian friend I’ve convinced to meet me there? I’ve thought about this a lot over the last twenty months.

The bulk of the gay theatrical cannon I know comes from 80s and 90s – born out of queer liberation in the 70s and the AIDS crisis. The Boys In The Band, Torch Song Trilogy, The Normal Heart, Bent, My Night With Reg, Angels In America… they are all now period pieces.

The Inheritance Broadway art work

The Inheritance speaks to me, now, in a way that coalesces my experience as a post-AIDS crisis gay man. As the character Eric says, “I can’t imagine what those years were like. I can understand what it was. But I cannot possibly feel what it was.” For the first time I saw a refined and current version of my own personhood reflected on stage.

So many gay plays of the 2000s were hooked around “chem-sex”, “app-sex”, “polyamory” or “rent boys” – like there was an epidemic of gay playwrights with drug and sex addictions (or wishing they did from their writing desks). But The Inheritance spoke about relationships and our community with such compassion and maturity and… grace.

The Inheritance poster on London’s Underground

For the record I also know people who simply didn’t care for it at all. Some didn’t even bother to finish watching it. Some chalked it up as being merely ‘okay’. Even I think some of those earlier reviews were written merely to get their quotes on the poster.

Each time I’ve seen The Inheritance the impact has lessened – nothing will match that first, innocent performance. But I’m acutely aware that this is theatre, it will never be the same. This is an ephemeral medium, and is all the better for it. Once it’s gone – it’s gone.

When the eventual revival happens I will be one of the old queens boasting about being there when it started, talking to a new generation of gay men exploring their voices. And for that, I will always be grateful to Matthew Lopez and his creation.

By Chad Armstrong

Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance directed by Stephen Daldry officially opens on at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Sreet, New York tomorrow, Sunday November 17th 2019. We will be reviewing it soon. For more information and to book tickets head to the official The Inheritance on Broadway website here.

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