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Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams at Menier Chocolate Factory

Hattie Morahan (Lady Torrance), Seth Numrich (Val Xavier). Credit Johan Persson.
Hattie Morahan (Lady Torrance), Seth Numrich (Val Xavier). Credit Johan Persson.

Venue and play are perfectly matched in Orpheus Descending at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. The play is set in a store with confectionery so the ex-Menier Chocolate Factory evokes wonderfully the atmosphere of such an establishment. We feel like Orpheus descending as we make our way down to the auditorium. Its pitch black. Brilliantly the designer Jonathan Fensom (The Lion King) has created an arch entrance/exit centre stage beyond which is a void of terrifying darkness much like a black hole or a vortex of emptiness. We are halfway to Hades before a word is spoken. It’s a brilliant recreation and something Tennessee Williams would surely have approved for he explicitly stated that his intention in this play was to show “the horror in things, a horror at the heart of existence of the meaninglessness of existence.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) is the American Chekhov. He’s hot Chekhov as it were. He gives us the American South in such masterpieces as A Street Car Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Orpheus Descending is a revision of his 1940 play Battle of Angels. He spent 17 years working on it until it was premiered on Broadway in 1957. It was denounced as “dirty” and the Police demanded changes in the dialogue. A good play then.

The cast for this production is superb. Every single member of the team is convincing. Not just major characters but even minor seemingly minor characters like Dog Hamma are so well done that the South in all its bigotry and beauty comes vividly to life. The Southern accents are spot on and never once do the actors falter. The costumes are most evocative. The hero Valentine Xavier (Seth Numrich) in his snakeskin jacket or his blue work jacket or in the last scene in his white jacket each reflecting a different phase of his descent. Or Carol Curtrere in her Leopard skin coat and red shift or Pee Wee Binnings in his dungarees and cap.

The psychological depth and subtlety of the performances are astonishingly high. Mark Meadows brings the terrifying patriarch Jabe Torrance to life by the simple but insistent act of banging on the floor with his walking stick from his upstairs bedroom. The bullying Sheriff Talbott is captured brilliantly by the excellent Ian Porter. His keys on a chain and gun suggest enough from his first entrance. His wife Vee Talbot the sexually repressed Artist is superbly played by Carol Royle. Jesus touched me here she says to Valentine as she places his hand on her left breast. Seth Numrich and Hattie Morahan, as hero and heroine, have chemistry much like Mellor’s and Connie in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I noticed that Hattie was crying at the end of the show so emotionally involved in her part had she become. Gregory Clarke’s eerie sound effects do much to create a sense of menace that pervades this small town in River County. The howling hounds chasing down runaway convicts are especially powerful. And foreshadow the tragic and terrifying last scene.

5 Star Rating

Review by John O’Brien

Lady is trapped in a loveless marriage, surrounded by intolerant people, living a boring small-town life. But when a wild-eyed charismatic drifter appears a new life of love and passion suddenly seem possible. Everything will change as certainty, conformity and tradition are ripped apart.

Tennessee William’s Deep South American drama is directed by Theatr Clwyd’s Artistic Director Tamara Harvey. Orpheus Descending began its life as Battle of Angels in 1940, and was first performed on Broadway in 1957. In 1959, Sidney Lumet directed the film adaptation, The Fugitive Kind, starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani.

Cast:
Catrin Aaron (Beulah Binnings)
Michael Geary (Pee Wee Binnings)
Valentine Hanson (Uncle Pleasant)
Jenny Livsey (Eva Temple / Woman)
Laura Jane Matthewson (Dolly Hamma)
Mark Meadows (Jabe Torrance)
Ifan Meredith (David Cutrere / Dog Hamma)
Hattie Morahan (Lady Torrance)
Seth Numrich (Val Xavier)
Ian Porter (Sheriff Talbott)
Jemima Rooper (Carol Cutrere)
Carol Royle (Vee Talbott)
Carrie Quinlan (Sister / Nurse Porter)

Director: Tamara Harvey; Designer: Jonathan Fensom; Lighting Designer: Tim Mascall; Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke; Composer: Simon Slater
The Theatr Clwyd and Menier Chocolate Factory co-production of
ORPHEUS DESCENDING
by Tennessee Williams
Menier Chocolate Factory
53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU
Booking to 6th July 2019

Author

  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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