Juliet Stevenson stars in this technically ambitious drama about a damaged aviator
Arthur Kopit’s 1978 theatre experiment ‘Wings’ concerns Emily Stilson, a former pilot and wing-walker who is recovering from a stroke. The text is formally ambitious but ambiguous with regards to how her brain damage manifests itself; director Natalie Abrahami has turned it into something stupendously technically exacting for her lead actor Juliet Stevenson, who performs the entire play wearing a wire harness, suspended from the ceiling.
The first five minutes or so are dazzling: sat miserably in a chair as we file in, Stilson is hauled skywards as the show begins. She bursts into strangely joyous life, floating through an abstract world of trilling syllables, impressionistic projections and sliding floors. It is chaotic and disorientating and literally meant to be recreating the sensation of having suffered a stroke, but there is something joyous about it – Stilson remains free and untouchable in a bright, untouched corner of her own mind. A brilliant, brave actor, Stevenson swoops and spins with remarkable dexterity for somebody without much physical theatre on her CV.
But even so, I found something frustrating about the amount of skill and energy Stevenson was putting in versus what this take on ‘Wings’ really gives us back. As the play wears on, Stilson is slowly grounded by her rehabilitation – the virtuosic aerial passages are still there, but ‘normal’ sequences grow in number as her ability to interact with other people goes from nil to not bad.
The thing is, that’s basically the entire plot. ‘Wings’ is about form as much as anything, and it’s clearly the decision to use the wire is a technical challenge that Stevenson and Abrahami – who previously teamed up to revive Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ at the Young Vic – have relished. But the novelty of the wire palls after a while; Stevenson is great, but she isn’t an acrobat and there’s only so much she can wring out of her harness, emotionally speaking. Eventually, you’re and you’re left with a big, cumbersome visual metaphor for Stilson’s condition. ‘Wings’ is a fascinatingly different play, but here its technical and emotional trajectories both feel like a journey from audacity to novelty.