Thursday, 21 September 2017

Theatre review: Wings

Just like a plane, a stage, a sanitary towel or a bucket of fried chicken, Juliet Stevenson has Wings in Arthur Kopit’s 1979 Broadway play. The Young Vic’s revival sees her reunite with director Natalie Abrahami, who has a very specific vision for this story of a highly active older woman relearning how to interact with the world after suffering a stroke. Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, who not only piloted vintage planes but used to do wing-walks on them. But we meet her just as she has her stroke and she’s thrown into confusion, feeling at a disconnect as if she’s floating over the world. It’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative that Abrahami takes literally, having Stevenson fly on wires above the stage, initially unable to touch down on the ground.

The opening scenes leave the audience as much in the dark as Emily is, with her own monologue largely surreal, and interrupted occasionally by a mix of disjointed statements and gibberish from the doctors tending her.

I did worry that after collaborating on Beckett last time Stevenson and Abrahami had found something similar, but gradually Wings reveals itself to be a bit of a precursor to The Father, in that it throws the audience into the viewpoint of someone experiencing great mental confusion. But where Florian Zeller’s play could only see its lead further degenerate, there’s hope for improvement here, and things gradually clarify as Emily goes into rehabilitation with Lorna Brown’s patient but determined therapist.

The production is notable for its technical elements, not just the flying rig but also Michael Levine’s design; following on the trend for the Young Vic to use its large backstage area to back up elaborate sets, we have a traverse with a central floor that slides back and forth, taking the ground out from under Stevenson’s feet as much as the wires do. But what struck me most about the play was the way it created an empathy that almost crept up on me. Of all the Future Dames, Stevenson is one I’ve never really been that excited about, but she won me over here with a performance at once graceful and brittle, as befits the contrast between her character’s soaring thoughts and hamstrung body.

The world of Wings expands as Emily’s horizons do, and we start to see her join a group rehabilitation session. Perhaps as a reminder that strokes don’t exclusively affect the old, the middle-aged Billie (Kelle from off of Eternal) is among those starting to piece language back together. But the heart of the story stays with Emily and Stevenson, whose position I found myself imagining myself into to an extent I didn’t expect, making for a sometimes almost unbearably moving evening.

Wings by Arthur Kopit is booking until the 4th of November at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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