The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism … review – Tony Kushner's turbulent epic fizzes with ideas

Hampstead theatre, London
David Calder plays a communist longshoreman with a death wish and Tamsin Greig is his witty, passionate daughter in Michael Boyd’s terrific production

“Have you seen the play?” “No, but I’ve read the title.” So ran an old joke about the original 26-word name of the work now known as Marat/Sade. But, while you could apply the same gag to Tony Kushner’s prodigious three-and-a-half-hour play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (also known as iHO), its full title reveals a lot: this is a work about sex, politics and religion. While it bulges at the seams, it is bracing, in an age of mini-dramas, to find a play that throws in everything from Marx to modern materialism.

David Calder with Greig in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide … at Hampstead theatre.
David Calder and Tamsin Greig. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

In contrast to the spiralling fantasy of Angels in America, Kushner has written a piece that relies on the tradition of American family drama. The setting is New York in 2007 and Gus, a retired Brooklyn longshoreman and devout communist, has called his clan together to announce his plan to sell his house and then kill himself. This causes varying degrees of shock to his three offspring. Empty (short for Maria Teresa) is a labour lawyer with a pregnant lesbian partner. Pill (otherwise Pier Luigi) is a gay teacher torn between his long-term academic lover and a young Yale-educated hustler. V (short for Vito) is a hetero building-contractor and much the angriest. Watching over proceedings with eerie calm is Gus’s sister, Clio, a one-time nun and Maoist.

It is easy to itemise the flaws in Kushner’s concept. At one point, he resorts to a plot device straight out of The Cherry Orchard. The religious element, in that the partners of both Empty and Pill study faith without practising it, often seems tacked on. And you wonder how many lovers discuss commodity fetishism in the heat of passion. But the play, which makes constant use of overlapping dialogue to convey family tensions, has a furious energy and deals with the disillusion in an Italian-American community, and by implication a whole society, whose dreams have not been realised.

Calder, Lex Shrapnel and Katie Leung in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …
Calder, Lex Shrapnel and Katie Leung in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide … Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

For me, Kushner is at his best when he deals directly with politics in a series of father-child exchanges. The most powerful comes when Gus is confronted by Empty over his planned suicide. He may have Alzheimer’s but it is clear that his death wish is driven by despair over revolutionary failure: as a union man, he fought for a guaranteed annual income for longshoremen only to find it never achieved the radical change he longed for. Meanwhile Empty is an ardent revisionist who cites the numerous incremental benefits brought about by political action. It is a classic battle between the revolutionary and the reformer and has echoes of the father-daughter conflicts in Shaw’s Major Barbara.

Kushner’s play, which is both vivid and untidy, is given a terrific production by Michael Boyd. David Calder’s Gus has the right mix of gravitas and rumbling embitterment. Tamsin Greig as Empty is sharp, witty and passionate in her gradualism and there are equally strong performances from Richard Clothier as the chronically indecisive Pill and Lex Shrapnel as the recklessly impulsive V. But the performance that draws the eye in this tumultuous family battle is that of Sara Kestelman as the ironically watchful Clio. There are many better-organised plays around, but Kushner’s has the rare capacity to make ideas fizz.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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