The rediscovery and restaging of the lesser known works of major playwrights has been something of a trend in London theatres recently. Duncan MacMillan and Ian Rickson’s critically acclaimed production breathed new life into Ibsen’s Rosmersholm with its modernist female-lead and political storyline that found new resonances, making a reasonable case for the play’s inclusion amongst Ibsen’s finest writing. Last year Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran did the same for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but despite the many good things about Tamara Harvey’s new production of Orpheus Descending it’s never going to be considered a neglected masterpiece.
Yet even a middling Tennessee Williams play is better than most, and this one still has plenty to say about sacrifice and suffocation in small-town America. Written in 1957, this is mid-period Williams, it comes after greats such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and immediately followed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but before Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana a revival of which opens at the Noel Coward in June. Orpheus Descending didn’t last long on its debut and the play has a number of structural problems which even Harvey’s fine production cannot entirely overcome.
With the entirety of the play set in the Torrance store, much of the action happens off-stage either in other locations or between scenes, so what the audience hears is either character memories or town gossip which can make the action feel a little static or, in places, too fast moving. What set Williams’s greatest works apart is the family setting in which long-buried tensions and frustrations are triggered and released by the catalytic action of the play, examined through long character-driven exchanges. Additional context has happened before and around the action, but Williams ensures the storm gathers and breaks in front of us.
Orpheus Descending has elements of that but with the key focus on the disconcerting arrival of a handsome stranger causing chaos in the town, Williams is only partially successful. His protagonist here Valentine Xavier, known as Val, is the agent of change despite his intention to live a cleaner life now he’s 30. His arrival is a chance for the townsfolk to exorcise a past act – the burning of the wine garden and orchard which resulted in the death of Lady’s father – and to confront the truth about its consequences many years later. Val may exacerbate this knowledge, but he has no connection to it which reduces some of the play’s tension.
Val and Lady (daughter of the deceased owner of the wine garden, derogatorily referred to as “The Wop” throughout) have most of the conversation but with less than four months acquaintance by the end of the play there are no damaging secrets or withheld frustrations between them that energise Williams’s better works. Val’s travelling loner status and wild past is interesting, but he lacks the raw jealous control of Stanley Kowalski or the stunted boyhood bitterness of Brick Pollitt that reverberates around the family unit caught helplessly in their self-destructive force. Instead, Williams has to place these legacy resentments and secrets in the hands of characters we hardly get to see, lessening their impact even in the play’s dramatic and revelatory final scene.
But Orpheus Descending is by no means a bad play, and Harvey’s production which opened at Theatre Clwyd in April, makes the best of it with a well-paced ¾ round production that focuses on Williams’s engaging character studies and the impressionistic sketch of a small town full of fears and repressed emotion. Jonathan Fensom takes a simple approach to setting, and rather than creating a general store full of stock and a shop counter instead offers a scattering of fold-up chairs and a few tables to give the look of a café or outside picnic area. Serving as the shop doorway, the rear wall is dominated by a large wooden archway with slightly singed boards – quietly referencing the fire at the Moon Lake wine garden that took Lady’s father’s life. This obscures the “Confectionary” that Lady is adding to the building, and the town beyond where so much of the drama takes place away from the audience’s view.
One of Harvey’s most intriguing inventions is to use the character of Uncle Pleasant as a kind of Chorus, echoing the Greek legend on which the story is based. An almost mute character in Williams’s original, a local “Conjure Man” who frightens some of the more highly-strung ladies but used to imply freedom from the oppressive rules of this exclusionist and racist town that resists all outsiders, Val included. Harvey has given Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant carefully selected passages from the stage directions to read at various points through the play, almost as though the character is “conjuring” the store and its people as a moral warning to the viewer. It’s an interesting and welcome technique that adds additional layers to the production, although perhaps is used too sparingly to create a sense of inevitability to the same extent as the narrated structure of Greek legends do.
The repression of wildness and its consequences is a key theme, one which Williams handles with particular skill. The notion of the store is juxtaposed as a metaphor for commercial exchange repeatedly referenced in the play, and something which Harvey’s version draws attention to, the idea of people being bought and sold in marriage and other forms of oppressive relationship. Lady is central to this and right at the start of the play townswoman Beulah (Catrin Aaron) explains to the audience that store owner Jabe “bought her, when she was a girl of eighteen! He bought her and bought her cheap.” Later in the play, during a slightly rushed and unlikely conversation with David Cutrere who left her to marry a richer woman Lady tells him “You sold yourself. I sold myself. You was bought. I was bought.” Even Val says “I’m telling you, lady, there’s people bought and sold in this world like carcasses of hogs in butcher shops!”
This is designed to show us the psychological state of many of the characters, limited by the confines of their location and broken down by lives they never wanted. While women like Beulah and Dolly (Laura Jane Matthewson) are happier with their lot, the three more central characters – Val, Lady and Carol Cutrere – are caged animals like many a Williams character, unable to tame their natural wildness however many years they live in confinement. Carol is perhaps the most tragic of these with Jemima Roper at first suggesting a woman much more at ease with who and what she is, unashamed and almost proud of the stares and the gossip her appearance and behaviour elicits. Carol is the only character to be friendly to Uncle Pleasant, while openly and lustfully pursuing Val throughout the play.
Yet, Roper allows us to see the vulnerability and essential fragility in Carol as the action unfolds, explaining that her over-made-up appearance is a mask of expectation, a self-proclaimed “exhibitionist” oppressed by the family name and acting out for effect. But Roper shows us that Carol’s bravado, the drink, the partying, the men on Cyprus Hill are manifestations of her broken spirit, the obsession with Val and her increasing desperation has a real tragedy in Roper’s performance that underscores Williams’s core theme about the artificial restrictions places on people not built for ordinary society.
Hattie Morahan’s Lady is in a slightly different kind of cage, one she built herself by aligning with the much older Jabe. At the start of the play her strength and determination are emphasised, there’s a no-nonsense feel to her that seems practical and different to the other women in the town, unaffected by Val’s handsome face. Lady sits on the boundary of insider and outsider status, still seen as the daughter of someone who didn’t belong but through sheer determination forced herself into the town’s structure through marriage and in maintaining the focal-point store.
Yet, as the play unfolds, Morahan allows this resignation to slowly unpeel, revealing a woman more deeply scarred by the death of her father and the former relationship that would have offered a happier life. The early conversations with Val are played as two equals, employer and employee without an underlying sexual tension which suggests Lady’s emotional centre is more tightly controlled, that she’s not looking for an escape route. Morahan instead implies that the passion between them is more spontaneous, their eventual chemistry growing out of being listened to and respected for the first time in years, which unleashes a torrent (linking to her married surname) of emotion and a trembling hope that makes the finale both poignant and powerful. It’s an approach that yields rewards in Morahan’s interesting and meaningful interpretation of a woman rediscovering her spirit.
Seth Numrich is an experienced Williams leading man, having previously starred alongside Kim Cattrall in The Old Vic’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and his Val finds himself at a crucial decision point in his life. Having just turned 30, he’s trying to turn his back on his former fast-paced lifestyle and unlike Carol struggles less with the desire to find something more wholesome. Numrich presents a calm figure, detached from those around him seeking a kind of peace. His chemistry with Lady develops slowly, as friendship becomes something else. It may not be a grand burning passion, but the steadier coming together of two damaged souls.
But as the play unfolds his old life starts to call him back, releasing he cannot so easily switch-off the old desires and struggling to transition to the better, more stable man he wants to be. Numrich’s finest moment is later in the play at a crucial point of revelation, one which Val embraces with genuine delight, finally offered the chance, albeit momentarily, to be all the things he hoped for, a scene that Numrich suggests is crucial to the psychology of Val, a traveller looking for direction.
Following Harvey’s recent West End success with Home, I’m Darling, this production of Orpheus Descending similarly examines the one-size-fits-all role women have been expected to play in society and how damaging that can be. The chilly auditorium may reflect Lady’s frequent complaints about the coldness in the store after dark – the Menier perhaps making it a little too immersive – but this well-performed and considered production is a consistently interesting and valuable experience. It’s not Williams’s best work by any means but the complexity of his character portraits and its comment on “them and us” attitudes still hold considerable meaning for modern audiences.