Tuesday, 24 October 2017
Wings at The Young Vic
One of my early thoughts watching Wings by Arthur Kopit now playing at The Young Vic, was how on earth has Juliet Stevenson managed not to throw up? For she spends most of the seventy minutes running time strapped into a harness, swooping, diving and somersaulting in a manner that would give the Red Devils a run for their money. Stevenson’s last encounter with the Director, Natalie Abrahami, had the actress buried up to her neck in earth in Beckett’s Happy Days. Just a passing thought, but perhaps she should think twice about the content of the next production on which the pair collaborate?
Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, who at seventy years old has developed a neurological disorder called Aphasia. In her earlier years Emily was an aviator and wing walker and the rising and falling action caused by the harness not only mimics the way her mind is now forced to work but is also a harking back to her happy times in the air.
The designer, Michael Levine, has devised a long, raised platform that is able to move across the stage, onto which the airborne Stevenson gently drops from time to time. It is also where we view her, seated reading on a chair as the play opens and where the various members of the company playing doctors, nurses and therapists periodically appear.
Dialogue is sparse and when uttered by Stevenson often makes no sense; the poor woman knows what she wants to say but her condition renders her incapable of forming her thoughts into coherent words. Arthur Kopit’s father was also imprisoned within his own head by a stroke and whilst he was undergoing therapy, Kopit came across a former aviatrix whose brain had crashed. Thus Wings, written in 1978 is largely based on these experiences.
Unlike many forms of neurological complaints, Aphasia can improve and, thanks to the care and dedication of the professionals assigned to help her, Emily’s speech gradually returns. Juliet Stevenson must be thrilled when she can, at last, perform in an upright position.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch someone they know and love in the throes of a neurological condition may find, if not solace, at least some understanding as to what the illness can mean to the patient. Wings, whilst not exactly a bundle of laughs is a fascinating insight into this too prevalent condition. Juliet Stevenson is her usual excellent self and it is seventy minutes of unusual and thought-provoking theatre.