To give Tony Kushner’s play its full title – The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures – is to sell it short. This is a history of left-wing politics and activism in the US that sweeps across the whole of the 20th century. And it’s also a family drama of parodic contemporary complexity that turns into a meditation on death. Thanks for the abbreviation, but it’s “iHo, iHo and off to work we go” with such a dauntingly demanding piece.
It can be hard to connect with characters taking abstract ideals so seriously, but Kushner makes Communist Party member Gus convincing, and asks us to question why the values he has lived by might feel alien. A kind of leftist Willy Loman, Gus is a superb role in which David Calder excels. The declaration that he is soon to take his own life sends his family into a spin and adds mounting emotion to the text. Dividing the house among his children, each of whom make King Lear’s kids look positively benign, brings secrets out of the woodwork, adding further tension.
Gus’s sons Pill (Richard Clothier) and Vito (Lex Shrapnel) are joined by Tamsin Greig, who plays his daughter. She’s the favoured child, heir to all that theory, and, as the play grows, her increasing concern with mortality sees her performance gain in strength. Along the way the sibling dynamics provide a lot of humour. I-Ho is very funny. The younger generation’s complex personal lives (let’s just mention Pill’s affair with a prostitute, confirming Kushner’s obsession with commodification) and their academic partners provide a lot of laughs, with outrageous narcissism and jargon-laden chat. I’ve a theory they’re all imprisoned by identity politics: a trend that’s ripe for exploration.
The part of Aunt Clio provides such a blast for Sara Kestelman that it’s a real highlight. Once a nun, then a Maoist and now moving on to Christian Science, she’s described as addicted to the “metaphysical crack pipe”. With characters like her it’s hard not to love the play. But a warning is needed: nothing about i-Ho is easy. More than one scene has the large cast talking over one another. It’s masterfully handled by director Michael Boyd but proved too much for some audience members. It feels as if Kushner is cramming more than one play into the night. Each of the three acts here would have been satisfying. Cumulatively, by the end of three hours, if you managed to keep up you definitely deserve a certificate.
Until 26 November 2016
Photo by Manuel Harlan