Wings at the Young VicCultureTheatre
With Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play Wings, Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson have found a way to make the mental startlingly physical. As Emily Stilson – a pilot and wing walker who suffers a stroke – Stevenson spends nearly 75 minutes in the air, this circus-like staging amplifying the disorientating nature of the production.
Yet for all the acrobatics, the pair can’t quite elevate Kopit’s text. The playwright isn’t wholly successful in portraying his protagonist’s liminal state. The best scenes see the former pilot in her hospital surroundings. Doctors and nurses pull a confused Emily to and fro, speaking in the infantilising babble normally reserved for babies or the aged. This sparks furious fits from the patient, as her inner voice clashes with her inability to communicate.
The airborne monologues work less well. The intended effect is clear – someone floating in and out of coherence, the solar flares of memory briefly illuminating the darkness. It’s just very hard to write dialogue that captures such mental fragmentation without sounding self-consciously gimmicky, a pitfall Kopit fails to avoid.
For all its faults, the writing does prompt some fantastic visuals from Abrahami. The audience is sat either side of a small stage that shifts from left to right, with walls created by diaphanous curtains. These act as makeshift screens for a variety of projections, from the dreamlike to the medical to a plane’s eye view of rolling landscapes.
At times, the fractured pieces of Emily’s mind coalesce into something resembling a memory, only with the faces and details blurred out. Actors dressed as aviators simulate propellers before creating a wing for Stevenson to walk on. Figures lurk just out of focus – son, father, lover? – before harsh strip lighting blasts the embryonic thoughts into the ether.
Unnecessary American accent aside, Stevenson is superb. She Peter Pans herself across the stage-void, alternating between elegant rage and graceful unease. Though given little to work with on a character front her Emily retains a fierceness that seems to represent the unbreakable core of her being.
As Emily enters a memory clinic and begins to recover Wings loses its edge. The conversations between the pilot and her therapist are touching, but lack the clout of those earlier moments. That the protagonist never interacts with anyone she knew pre-stroke also cuts off a potentially rich vein that would have developed her as a character.
Instead we’re left with something closer to an intellectual exercise – Kopit is just fortunate that his play found its way to Stevenson and Abrahami. The chemistry between actor and director, and the fascinating physicality at the centre of the production, help mask – to a point – the underdeveloped nature of the narrative.
Photo: Johan Persson
Wings is at the Young Vic from 14th September until 4th November 2017. For further information or to book visit here.