By J.B. Priestley
Perhaps I’ve been watching too many sharp out-there British crime dramas on television. Perhaps Inspector Morse and his successors have beguiled me with their cool laid-back style, or perhaps J.B. Priestley’s 60-year-old play is simply outdated, but I was alternately irritated and bored witless by the National Theatre production of this old chestnut that is currently touring the colonies.
An Inspector Calls was written in 1945, but it’s set in 1912. The dates are important to an understating of the play, which reflects Priestley’s social concerns about what Disraeli had called a century earlier the Two Nations, the rich and the poor. Priestley’s belief was that the ruling class’s disregard for working people had set up the conditions for World War I (the play is set just two years before the outbreak of that war), and also for World War II (which explains the silent chorus of 1940s character who act as silent spectators to the action).
So underneath the standard 1940s plot is a powerful sub-text of social criticism, and unless you understand this the play will seem very dated and creaky indeed.
No, let me change that. The plot is dated and creaky, and in spite of its rapturous PR it’s very old-fashioned. The big problem for a modern director is to make it palatable to 21st century audiences, who after long exposure to the subtlety of writers like Lynda La Plante et al are much cleverer at solving this kind of mystery than their grandparents were. BR>
Stephen Daldry has chosen to play it over-the-top, almost in music hall style, accompanying the dialogue with a suitably melodramatic musical score from Stephen Warbeck. These elements, along with a very effective set (although we’ve seen it before, when the play toured Australia with a different cast in 1995), make it very spectacular, but the ideas don’t have much resonance in our more egalitarian society. One of the actors remarked in an interview that she was surprised how easily Australian audiences laughed at some of the characterisations, and that we didn’t seem to take it nearly as seriously as British audiences did.
But how can you not laugh as Sybil wanna-be Lady Birling (Sandra Duncan like the rest of the cast, not a name well-known to Australian audiences) morphs from Lady Bracknell into the Red Queen and finally Polly Adler, her elaborate wig falling apart and her Queen Mary-like bosom heaving sobs as she grovels in the rain?
Or as her husband, the bluff bourgeois bully Arthur Birling (David Rope), carries on as if he’s escaped from a Dickensian melodrama?
How can you take the shrieking Emma Darwall Smith seriously when, as the debutante Sheila, her white gown is grubby right from the beginning, well before she drags it into the mud, and her hair (is it a wig?) is tatty enough to have come from the props box of an amateur rep company?
What are we to make of Edna, the ancient housemaid to this nouveau-riche Edwardian family, who totters about placing chairs, giving tin mugs of tea to the inspector, posing her employers in what can only be called “attitudes” and never saying a word?
And, most disturbing of all, why oh why is Pip Donaghy allowed to over-react to every situation, showing no restraint and acting more like a bullying prosecuting barrister? Inspector Goole he may be, but Inspector Cool he certainly isn’t. Where is Alec Guinness or even Alastair Sim when you really need him?
It’s really hard to take this play seriously any more. Even the ending, which opens up another mystery which I won’t reveal, for it gives the play another level of meaning we’ve seen before. It may suggest the metaphysical depth of a Day of Judgment, but even that’s been done better in later plays.
One thing it did manage was to raise my patriotic ire. This may be a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain, but the standard was no better than, and probably well below, any good professional Australian company could offer. It was more like solid British repertory theatre, doing a good job in the provinces, but very much the B-team.
Frankly, I’m tired of being patronised by overseas theatre companies giving us tired old plays with very ordinary casts. This production didn’t even have a name star at least the RST touring production of Richard III in 1986 had Anthony Sher in the lead, with brilliant actors like Pete Postlethwaite and Patricia Routledge in minor roles.
I’d willingly pay $75 to see world-class actors like Alan Howard, Brian Blessed or Margaret Tyzak in some of these roles, or even familiar faces from BBC television. At least there would be the thrill of recognition. But I’ve never seen any of this lot even in a bit part in The Bill!
Second-rate play, second-rate cast, second-rate direction, but a first rate set and special effects. It all adds up to great spectacle, but it doesn’t necessarily make great theatre.
Directed by Julian Webber
Playing until 16 March 2006: Tuesday to Saturday 7:30pm, matinees Saturday and Wednesday 1.30pm, Sunday 3pm
Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes – no interval