Tennessee Williams’ re-imagining of the Greek legend of Orpheus, first presented on Broadway in 1957 and itself a rewrite of one of his earlier works, Battle Of Angels, has never been amongst his most celebrated or performed pieces, which makes this revival at the Royal Exchange all the more intriguing.
The Orpheus of the title is Valentine Xavier, a young handsome musician who gets a job in a goods store run by Lady Torrance, whose elderly husband is nearing the end of his life. In the words of Williams himself, Xavier “creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop” in the life of Lady as she slowly but surely lets herself hope of a better life with the young stranger.
The usual Tennessee Williams themes are present and correct: repressed passion, loneliness and isolation all played out under swelteringly hot conditions in the Deep South against a backdrop of racial tension. But it’s also not that hard to see why Orpheus Descending has never really captured the imagination; it’s a real slow-burner, with a first half that goes on for slightly too long, and an initially bewilderingly large cast of characters.
Director Sarah Frankcom has a way with the Great American Play – she directed the Royal Exchange’s superlative production of A View From The Bridge last year – and here, as with that production, every aspect is beautifully realised. The design is incredibly atmospheric, from the rain-spattered windows covering the set at the beginning to the sound of trains rattling by off-stage. The cast are on top form, particularly Imogen Stubbs who puts in a glorious performance as Lady (and who was similarly strong in last year’s production of Private Lives); here she steps things up to a whole new level as the repressed wife yearning to break free. As her tragedy is slowly revealed, she almost seems to transform before your eyes, from an uptight, suspicious shopkeeper to someone more open and exposed, her barriers gradually coming down.
Luke Norris is the perfect foil for her, handsome and charming with a barely suppressed dark side. He’s a decent guitarist too, sounding (and looking) for all the world like Chris Isaak. Xavier is a tricky character to pull off, but Norris has enough charisma to be believable as both a dangerous, snakeskin jacketed hell-raiser and a tender lover. Jodie McNee is also compelling as the disturbed Carol, a self-described “lewd vagrant” who is utterly magnetic whenever she appears on-stage.
Williams’ dialogue is, of course, wonderfully liquid, and Frankcom’s production lends his words a rhythm that fits in well with the old-school blues soundtrack (performed, for the most part, by cast member Trevor Michael Georges). Occasionally, the Deep South accents slip, but that’s a small complaint. Frankcom has recreated this world so expertly, and drawn the audience in to it so thoroughly, that when the shocking conclusion is reached, it packs a real emotional wallop.