One may as well begin with the opening of the play. A procrastination of writers, all queer men, is sitting around with notebooks or tablets or laptops, looking for inspiration. One young man reaches for his favourite book, hoping that the opening sentence will inspire him.
E.M. Forster’s Howards End begins with a dashed off line to bring the reader straight into the intrigue of the story. “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.” The play-within-the-play, the one that’s being written as we watch it unfold, begins with Toby Darling’s voicemails to his boyfriend, Eric.
Matthew López’s The Inheritance deftly jumps back and forth between creating and creation. The young man who is writing the story is also talking with Forster – or Morgan, as he was known to his closest friends – about why his writing inspires him, even a century later. Morgan is thrilled to know his books will continue to be read, but he’s really hanging around to hear about gay men’s lives in the twenty-first century. A life he could never have lead.
Toby Darling is a writer of young adult fiction. His latest novel, Boy Loved, has been widely acclaimed and while his friends are all asking about when it will become a movie, he has to sheepishly admit he’s been commissioned to turn it into a play. A musical? One friend eagerly asks. “No, a straight play” he explains. Although nothing about it will be straight.
Toby and Eric have been in a committed relationship for seven years and although things are going well for them – both winning in their careers and living in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side – they come (and cum) to a crossroads while having sex. Eric wants to get married, but Toby isn’t so sure. Or, at least, he’s just very surprised by the mid-coitus question.
And thus, the delicious melodrama begins.
López’s play first opened at the Young Vic in London in 2018 before transferring to the West End and then, in 2019, it moved to Broadway. It’s an epic two-part play that runs about seven hours (plus a dinner break) and a new production, helmed by director Kitan Petkovski, opened in Melbourne this past weekend.
While the show recreates Howards End for the post-truvada generation in a general sense, this lengthy theatrical work was inspired by New York theatre collective Elevator Repair Services’ 8-hour production, Gatz, where they performed every word in The Great Gatsby. But it is also very firmly a spiritual sequel to Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning masterpiece, Angels in America.
Angels was set at the height of the AIDS crisis (1985-86) and The Inheritance takes place thirty years later, in 2016-17. A lot has improved for the LGBTQI+ community in the intervening decades – antiretroviral medications and gay marriage, to name two. But a lot has also stayed the same.
Where conservative politics was represented by the real-life lawyer Roy Cohn in the earlier play, he was a mentor to Donald Trump – the unnamed Republican nominee they discuss in the newer work.
The men of The Inheritance must grapple with Hilary Clinton’s loss, which portends a regressive government and a rolling-back of all the gains the community have made. But they also must deal with the past as much as the fresh present, wrestling with the idea that E.M. Forster had written a potentially world-changing book a century ago and went to the grave without ever seeing it published – Maurice, written after Howards End in the early 1910s was released posthumously in 1971.
What have the men of the past really done for us? Couldn’t they have fought harder? Fought longer? Just come out of the closet and somehow made it work? It’s a complicated sentiment, but for an age of gay men whose coming out was less tentative and often celebrated, how can they even conceive of a world that hated them so much they left a generation to die?
Time passes. Toby meets Adam, an aspiring actor who he accidentally swapped bags with at The Strand bookshop months before. Toby and Eric’s relationship hits a rough patch. Eric goes to upstairs neighbour, Walter, for some guidance and comfort.
Tension rises, and the arguments and laughs come from a place that is more cruel, dark. And it becomes harder and harder for the young writer who is composing all this to keep looking to Morgan for inspiration and stay truthful to his own story.
This production at fortyfivedownstairs is unabashedly queer, clever, inventive and fast-moving. It would be a very long day in the theatre if it dragged, even occasionally, but the show keeps moving and the entire cast is a delight.
All thirteen actors bring to life rich, layered characters, even if most of them are playing the watchful, vocal chorus for most of the play’s lengthy runtime. This audience of men watching and commenting on the story as it unfolds is an invention of López, but under the consummate direction of Petkovski, they are the beating heart of the production.
Outside of the breathing, undulating, cackling, bitchy ensemble – who all have individual stand-out moments, the story that’s being told puts certain actors front and centre time and time again.
Charles Purcell’s Eric is full of so much strength and compassion, but there’s also a searing rage, when his life starts to fall apart at other people’s hands. Purcell is an imposing figure and his work here is mesmerising. There’s so much going on under the surface of this performance.
As lot is asked of Tomáš Kantor as Toby Darling, a character you would empathise with deeply, if only he’d let you. Kantor plays Toby as a firecracker who could go off at any minute, desperate to capitalise on his recent career fortunes but unable to be honest with himself about himself.
The idea that Toby has made a career writing biographical works based on a him that doesn’t exist, presents Kantor with a challenge – what glimpses might they give to Toby’s vulnerabilities. The moment(s) he cracks devastate and reverberate. A truly stunning turn.
Dion Mill’s brings to life both E.M. Forster, mentor to the mysterious writer, as well as Eric’s close friend and confidante, Walter Poole. Mills is a deliciously fun presence as the older, wiser man amongst the sea of young men struggling to find their voices and their way.
His Walter is the lynchpin of the story-within-the-story, a soulful man, whose monologue about what it was to live as a gay man in New York in the 1980s grants the first act (just over an hour into the epic) a powerful conclusion. After that moment, the audience was in it for the long haul.
Rachel Lewindon’s score complemented and accentuated the emotion throughout. It’s one of the most impressive compositions I’ve ever heard in the theatre, deepening the power of the script and performances. After her work on Orlando last year, I’ll be keeping an ear out for Lewindon’s work into the future.
Bethany J. Fellows’ costumes add to the expansiveness of the play, the characters and chorus dressed as if they lived now and decades ago. With such a big cast and a number of changes for every actor on stage, the clothing is a kaleidoscope of fashions that echo across the last century.
I was less enamoured with Fellows’ set design. Though the different levels and the central dais acting variously as bed and dancefloor and communal space were impressive in size, the mish-mash of styles lessened the impact of the tableaux created throughout the production.
But it’s director Kitan Petkovski who keeps the entire show singing from one act to the next. His work is nothing short of phenomenal. Keeping this freight train moving with the right blend of comedy and drama is no mean feat, but it’s also enhanced by varied and inventive staging. A real sight to behold. The text is rich but it varies so wildly in tone, it requires a very sure hand to ensure it becomes a cohesive whole.
I have to applaud producer and fortyfivedownstairs’ Artistic Director, Cameron Lukey, for bringing this play to Melbourne for its Australian premiere. Cameron and fortyfive did extraordinary work last year – and having The Inheritance be the opening show for 2024 is a bold and vital way to kick off the new year. And it showcases the very cream of the independent theatre scene in Melbourne. Why wait for a mainstage or commercial production, when the best-of-the-best can do it all right in front of our faces?
The Inheritance is an epic drama about friendships and relationships and the living, breathing history of gay men in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It has a lot on its mind and it succeeds mostly when dealing with the forces the past brings to bare on the present.
Its articulation of some current politics is a little didactic – and, oddly, post-another pandemic and facing down another Presidential election that might end with the same result as 2016, the text occasionally feels dated and a little naïve.
But I am a big fan of durational theatre. I’ve never seen a show over four hours that I didn’t love, when there’s been plenty of ninety-minute shows that felt like they were too long. Being in the same space and seeing the same faces in the audience for over eight hours, even with a dinner reprieve, is a communal experience like no other.
It’s not like bingeing television at home. It’s a collective sharing of grief and laughter and – as part of Midsumma, a deep loving connection with the queer community.
Late in Howards End, two characters discuss Death and their idea of death – and which makes them more afraid. Helen thinks to herself “Death destroys a man; the idea of Death saves him.” The notion is at the heart of Forster’s book and López’s play.
And suddenly we can see that even after decades and centuries of dying and suffering, gay men of the past can speak clearly and directly to gay men of the present. History can illuminate even from the darkest of places.
The Inheritance is an amazing piece of writing. The production at fortyfivedownstairs is astonishing. Do not miss this incredible experience.
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 21 January 2024
Season continues to 11 February 2024
Information and Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com.
Images: The Inheritance – all photos by Cameron Grant
Review: Keith Gow