Wings at the Young Vic review: An experimental, high-flying play about a woman's stroke and recovery

Steve Hogarty
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Juliet Stevenson in Wings at the Young Vic (Source: Johan Persson)

Wings isn’t a one-woman show, but Juliet Stevenson makes it seem so. She’s suspended from the ceiling for the length of the 75 minute play – which feels a short while to the audience but probably not so much to Stevenson’s crotch – as the actor flies, spins, tumbles and soars above the stage like a pissed-up Peter Pan. She plays a woman in the midst of a stroke, experienced in visceral first-person and expressed in disjointed, abstracted speech and thought patterns, as flitting shadows of reality appear and vanish around her.

Arthur Kopit’s play was first written for radio, and as such Wings is an aural bombardment as much as it is a dizzying, experimental spectacle. Doctors probe Emily, an aviator and wingwalker, with tests and questions to gauge the severity of her brain damage: “in what room do you cook dinner? Which of these objects do you use to brush your teeth?” Fragments of memories and cognitive misfires send her cartwheeling (sometimes literally) into strange delusions, and as her rehabilitation begins to bring some aspects of reality back into focus, Wings becomes a more coherent play about speech and language disorder. When Lorna Brown makes her appearance as Emily’s therapist, she’s a perceptual lighthouse for both character and audience. Her presence and clear speech is a relief, and anchors the stage in a sense of much needed reality.

For a play about sickness and recovery, Wings is refreshingly unconcerned with mawkish tragedy (Emily’s family is pretty much absent), instead it’s preoccupied with the broken brain’s mystifying weirdness. That’s presumably no mistake. Kopit wrote Wings shortly after his own father’s stroke, and his work feels detached from emotion, and lacks a satisfying dramatic payoff. Stevenson’s stomach-turning high-wire performance brings an energetic and three-dimensional visual metaphor to this production, but it’s the unflinching authenticity that makes Wings fly.

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