When it comes to Tennessee Williams, you generally know what to expect. A heavy dose of sexual tension, wrapped up in deep south patriarchy and prejudice, with a tragic twist ever looming on the horizon. But even this foreknowledge doesn’t make the Theatr Clwyd and Menier Chocolate Factory co-production of Orpheus Descending any less thrilling, as it twists and turns through the lives of the inhabitants of this small American town.
This is Williams’ earliest staged work, under the title of Battle of Angels, and wasn’t originally much of a success. The rewrite in to Orpheus Descending is inspired by the Greek God, and our Orpheus is Val, a snakeskin wearing musician who rolls in to town with a murky and secretive past. His hell is the small-minded townsfolk who form a Greek chorus against him.
His only friend is his employer, and eventual lover, Lady who is both conflicted and dependent as her husband, Jabe lies dying upstairs. Lady and Jabe have secrets too, which are revealed in crushing revelations throughout the play. Carol Cutrere, wonderfully played by Jemima Rooper, serves as the outcast, ostracised by her peers and loved by no-one, apart from perhaps Uncle Pleasant (Valentine Hanson) who occasionally drops in to describe the scene.
The play is set entirely in the store owned by Jabe, and run by Lady, with an adjoining and soon to be reopened confectionary, the focus of much attention. But there’s no real sign of a retail emporium, aside from an old cash box, in Jonathan Fensom’s design, comprised of wooden slats and a few tables and chairs. While this may appear strange at first, it becomes clear that a complex set would distract the audience from Williams’ gratifyingly descriptive text, which allows us to create our own version of the store in our minds.
This Tennessee Williams work has all the hallmarks we’ve come to admire, but it’s also more comedic than his other work. Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson are superb as the gossipy wives Beulah and Dolly, not only emphasising the humour but drawing the audience forward in their seats to hear the latest titbit of scandal. Carol Royle also gives a wonderful performance as Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife who is forever at the mercy of her visions.
Seth Numrich is utterly captivating as the dashing Val Xavier, he succeeds in allowing the audience to focus less on superficial beauty, and more on the beauty that inhabits the characters soul. Hattie Morahan finds Lady’s nervous energy and amplifies it to create a tension that hangs over the stage like a storm cloud waiting to burst.
Director Tamara Harvey manages to fill the stage, not only in the scenes which involve the large ensemble, but also in the more intimate scenes, particularly between Val and Lady. At times it feels as if the whole world has stopped save for these mismatched lovers. Often this is a result of Tim Mascall’s rich and warm lighting which creates a real sense of focus.
The first act ticks along quite slowly, taking its time to introduce the characters and slowly reveal their secrets making the whole play feel a touch too weighty, but the second act picks up the pace before reaching a devastating climax. Orpheus Descending is a fantastically captivating piece in which the modern world is easily recognisable, despite being a period piece, but it is the dexterity of the cast which truly elevates it to the Tennessee Williams classic it deserves to be.