The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
Tulips, Sylvia Plath
Midway through Natalie Abrahami’s production of Wings, Emily Stilson (Juliet Stevenson) whacks over a vase of fluorescent supermarket flowers. In a play about a woman trapped performing act after act that is out of her control, it is a rare moment of very deliberate behaviour. And I loved her for it.
I loved her for waiting until the hospital worker had put down the ugly bouquet and walked out the room. I loved her for making the same darting eye movement that cats make before they hit your favourite ornament off the mantlepiece with their tail. I loved her for not wanting a bunch of cruddy sympathy flowers interrupting the clinical environment of the hospital.
In his introduction to the published script, Arthur Kopit describes the woman who inspired the character of Emily Stilson as “one of the bravest, most extraordinary persons.” Perhaps because of this muse and because Kopit’s interest in the work’s subject stemmed from his own father having a stroke, a different approach is taken to the patients in Wings than the one often seen in fiction and in real-life where ill-health is concerned.
Emily Stilson is more than a woman with aphasia. More than a ‘stroke victim’. Accordingly, her story starts before the moment when this life-changing event occurred. Kopit’s character is a mixture of the person before the stroke and after the stroke. She is a combination of good temper and bad moods; studious attempts at re-learning to speak and rash actions to remove those fucking flowers from the room.
Juliet Stevenson is a particularly good casting choice for the role of Emily Stilson, as there is nothing in her depiction that inspires sympathy. Or rather, there is nothing that inspires sympathy of a mawkish kind. Abrahami’s decision to have her suspended in a flying harness above Michael Levine’s sliding set design, reiterates Kopit’s insistence on remembering Emily Stilson’s earlier career as an aviatrix and wing walker. Through Kopit’s disjointed text (accurately described by Sarah Crompton as “not a play as much as a poem”) and the spinning scenes of the production, we get an Emily-eye-view of the world. That the playwright even cares enough to attempt to access her experience is something of a revelation, a genuine act of empathy.
It is a shame, then, that the impressiveness and ambition of the production works to often keep the audience at arms-length. Levine’s back-and-forth rectangle of a set, illuminated by endless strip lights, contains an excellent echo of an MRI scanner, yet (and I speak as someone sitting on the end of a row) it inevitably means that parts of the action take place some distance away. At times, the full effect of Will Duke’s projections are also lost because they’re being viewed at an angle and not straight on. The billowing curtains used for the projections are likewise an artful memory of endless hospital ward screens and another barrier that separates the audience from the action onstage.
Grumbling aside, Wings excellently shows the odd disjointedness that occurs in any hospital or medical setting between life inside and outside those walls. The confused uptake of the new role of ‘patient’; the one being looked after. Kopit’s play never loses sight of the people these patients were – and still are – before they became ill. I guess the word would be ‘dignity’, but even that seems a bit naff. Anyhow, as a piece of writing, it’s a much better gift than a bunch of flowers.
Wings is on at the Young Vic until 4 November 2017. Click here for more details.