Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Orpheus Descending’, which is at Theatr Clwyd until Saturday 27th April, before transferring to the Menier Chocolate Factory in London from May 9th to July 6th.
This is a classic production of as classic Tennessee Williams play. All his dramatic trademarks are there. The unreliable narrator who puts proceedings into a Deep South setting. The comedy neighbours who disarm and distract you from the tragedy to come. And the sparring central characters, caught up in an illicit sexual tension that inevitably threatens the core of the community.
It almost starts as a cliché. Valentine, a guitar-toting drifter, arrives in town looking for somewhere to earn some money and lay his head. Lady is about to reopen her murdered father’s burned-down wine garden and could so with a handy man. But men can be handy in other ways too.
It’s a marker of Williams’ supreme stage craft that the true villain of the piece is rarely seen. Lady’s husband is offstage, dying in bed; a menacing presence who has a secret to spill and scores to settle.
But the play begins in good humour.
Catrin Aaron is a remarkable actor who inhabits the very fibre of her characters. Her cameo as the busy-body neighbour Beulah, complete with immaculate Southern drawl, is outstanding. She finds huge amounts of less-than-obvious and surprisingly modern laughs in Williams’ subtle put-downs of small-town folk. The ammunition must have been right there in his text for 70 years, but Aaron, and her director Tamara Harvey, have excavated it anew. The result works rather like a stand-up comedian doing a turn before the big event. Imagine the Porter being a warm up act for Macbeth.
There is comedy too in the mitherings of the two dowdy women – played by Eva Temple and Carrie Quinlan – who care for the terminally ill Jabe; in Jemima Roopers’s vampish Carol Cutrere, and outrageously so in Carol Royle’s deranged, vision-seeking Vee who, in a bigger town, might have been locked up. She is tolerated; but little else is in this red-neck settlement of which Williams paints such a damning picture.
So, when the hobo Valentine rolls up in his snakeskin jacket and with his passion for playing Leadbelly licks, he is instantly desired by the woman and distrusted by the men.
Typically, Tennessee Williams takes the long way round in telling his story. Every character is carefully detailed, the atmosphere is painstakingly built and the sexual chemistry gently bubbles. So, it’s a long, establishing, first half. But the wait is absolutely worth it. The last, crashing act rapidly helter-skelters towards a deeply dramatic conclusion.
For most of the play Hattie Morahan plays Lady with elegance and control. She’s an exhibitionist but she cunningly marshals her exhibits to her own ends. The turning points for her are the sudden emergence of the truth about her father’s death … and the moment when she can no longer stop herself ensnaring Valentine. When ‘she loses it’, Morahan makes sure Lady loses it manically.
Seth Numrich gives the impression that things ‘just happen’ to his character Valentine. But for Lady, everything he does is suggestive as she latches onto hints about his earlier conquests. But it’s all played with so many ‘maybes’ that it really is up to the audience to decide whether he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or is part-architect in the downfall. Tamara Harvey gives him plenty of space to play his blues guitar and sing for Lady. Oh, so slowly she is lured.
Already we have heard how the townsfolk aim to drive one loose woman out of the county. Will Lady suffer a worse fate? In one of the most blatantly phobic scenes the Sherriff (Ian Porter) allegorically advises Valentine to be out by dawn. The drifter’s decision to defy the lawman’s illegal threats paves the way for the lynching to come. They get away with it because of their insular remoteness.
This is a worryingly pertinent play about a jaundiced community which could exist anywhere. It is tense and testy and has benefitted from the passage of time. In our inter-connected world, we are well aware of the proliferation of such prejudice.
This excellent Clwyd production reveals Tennessee Williams to be more farsighted than initially meets the eye.