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Orpheus Descending Reviewed

Joan Davies on Tennessee Williams' rarely performed classic

Written by . Published on October 31st 2012.

Orpheus Descending Reviewed

FOLLOWING her riveting performance in Noël Coward’s Private Lives last year, Imogen Stubbs returns to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in director Sarah Francom’s production of ‘Orpheus Descending’ by Tennessee Williams.

Lady Torrence, an Italian-American, is locked in a loveless marriage to the terminally ill Jabe Torrence, owner of Two-River County’s dry-goods store. An attractive drifter, Valentine Xavier, arrives determined to move his life forward, intending to leave behind his musical hedonist persona and settle for a more mature life, though still keeping the music alive.

The production, as it should, revolves around Imogen Stubbs’ shining performance as Lady Torrence. Her movement on stage is intensely realistic, underpinning the emotional charge of Lady Torrence.

The title Orpheus Descending refers to the mythical Orpheus, an enchanting and brilliant musician whose lover Eurydice dies and he attempts her rescue from Hades. In Tennessee Williams’ world hell can be the creation of our own souls, desires conflicting with respectable expectations and freedoms crippled within cruel conformity.

In this play hell is the confines of a cold and barren marriage held-up to inspection and control by a Greek chorus of gossipy women and their thuggish husbands, all controlled by their own fear, hate and revenge.

Orpheus DescendingOrpheus DescendingI’ve never been one of Tennessee Williams’ biggest fans, often finding his larger than life characters too large, overblown, with motivations I don’t quite believe. But this production, a lesser-loved and rarely performed play, soundtracked with mid-fifties blues and rain, takes a slow powerful train through longing and slowly drives it toward a recklessness that is hard to resist.

In a cast of fifteen there are only three main and three minor characters, the rest an American version of a Greek chorus, all individuals, who narrate the back-story via shopping gossip and add their judgemental comments on the choices the protagonists make. This works like a well-tuned orchestra,each character making a unique impact while the effect of the whole creates a vivid picture of the location, times and belief system in which the characters are placed.

Jodie McNee as Carol Cutrere, once charged as a ‘lewd vagrant’, highlights the vulnerability as well as the waywardness of a wild rich girl, banished by the family who fear her effect.

Luke Norris as the young man Valentine gives a balanced performance: a strong, determined figure who knows which direction he wants his life to go in, yet who responds to events rather than initiates them. A catalyst who believes that he will always be an outsider: “We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!”

Orph5Orpheus DescendingThe production, as it should, revolves around Imogen Stubbs’ shining performance as Lady Torrence. Her movement on stage is intensely realistic, underpinning the emotional charge of Lady Torrence. As an unhappy woman in a dead marriage she comes to life in the company and then the arms of musician Valentine. A strong woman, it is she who directs the affair, gaining strength from her awakening, joy from the results and despair as she learns the real truth about her father’s death.

The Royal Exchange’s theatre-in-the-round is a perfect setting. The dry-goods store has a solid feel, yet is hemmed in by the society it serves and responds to. The fear and loathing endemic in sections of a small Southern state town can be heard in the sounds which filter in through the doors: a hunt for a chain-gang escapee, dogs in pursuit; they make return appearances as the local population moves in and out, shopping, ostracising, threatening, hunting-down, punishing and Bible-quoting.

Those who live inside its doors are potentially in just the same danger as those outside. Outsider status is an ever-present encircling threat. Paul Willis’ design and Sarah Francom’s direction succeed in suggesting parallels with modern society’s persecutions as manifestations of fear and loathing.

Much of Williams’ work examines the forces railed against outsiders and the internal tensions people face as their desires and their desire to be accepted grind against one another, often to destruction. Lady eventually gives reign to personal desire, almost knowing that destruction will result:  “What on earth can you do on this earth but catch at whatever comes near you, with both your fingers, until your fingers are broken?” 

This is a superb production from The Royal Exchange with strengths throughout.  One of their best in recent years.

‘Orpheus Descending’ is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 24 November 2012

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the Whalley RangerOctober 31st 2012.

Tennessee Williams's plays are great fun to watch, especially in a surrounding as good as this. I recommend.

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