Two weekends, two plays

Last night I saw Joe Hill-Gibbons’ production of The Tragedy of King Richard II at the Almeida Theatre up the road. It’s one more play toward my goal of seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays before I’m forty. Though this highly pared-down production (less than 2 hours!) may have veered more toward an abridgment than a full production…

The play is about the fall of Richard II and the rise of Henry Bollingbroke who by the end becomes Henry IV and lays the groundwork for the Wars of the Roses. The title role was played by Simon Russell Beale, however, and that meant it wasn’t to be missed. I’ve seen Beale in a handful of plays now — in Spamalot and Stoppard’s Jumpers years ago in New York, and more recently in the RSC’s The Tempest here in London. In some actors’ mouths Shakespeare can feel harsh and obscure; in Beale’s, the Bard feels so clear and sensitive that the mirror turns and it’s real life that feels harsh and obscure.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, the rest of the production did not rise to Beale’s level. It was quick and serviceable, but left most of the room for development and nuance on the cutting room floor.

Last weekend I saw a play that was quite the opposite in pretty much every way. Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a seven-hour, two-part drama that traces the plot and themes of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, only transposed from Edwardian England to contemporary, gay New York City. It’s a play about love and class and how we deal with the past, both our own personal past and the past of our community and society. The “inheritance” referenced in the title was many things — an 18th Century farmhouse upstate; the grim legacy of AIDS; the many acts of courage and love and social reform that mean gay people today do not need to fear the marginalization and stigma of the past.

It was long, yes, but also brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. People are already likening it to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but this play resonated more with me. Perhaps because like Angels, this play is very much of its moment, and this is my moment.

One of the things I took away from the evening came not from the stage but from the man in the seat next to me. Like me, he was there by himself. He was a British man, probably in his early 60s, who lives in New York. He asked me what I thought of the play, and we had a good conversation. In many ways we embodied what we were seeing on stage. His experience of growing up gay was very different to mine. He told me just how scary it was to be gay in New York in the 1980s, when every pimple or cough could have meant the end. Many of his friends didn’t make it. Of course I was too young to remember any of that, so I learn about it through plays like this. I think it was the type of inter-generational conversation the playwright hoped to foster with the play.

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