An Inspector Calls
J B Priestley
Twenty years on from its original conception, Stephen Daldry's visionary reimagining of Priestley's classic moral mystery returns to the West End, and it's still as staggering an achievement as ever. It is wonderful to see a staging that is so lucid, so physically daring, so thrillingly in tune with the narrative: without wanting to generalize, it does seem these days to take a bit of National Theatre spark to remind the West End that stage design is supposed to be an art.
Ian MacNeil's famous set design has the Birling family inhabiting a squashed "house", close to half actual scale. This surreal doll's house is perched precariously on stilts above the authentically murky (and misty and rainy) street outside. When characters' heads and limbs protrude from doorways and windows, it's like Alice in Wonderland rapidly growing too big for the building she's in; and when the façade springs open it reveals the family clustered around an evening meal in an ornament-stuffed dining room not much bigger than a cupboard. It's a brilliant absurdist touch, but what it also does is manipulate our sense of scale: we seem to be seeing the house as though from a strange distance, whereas the street, and the action that takes place on it, is joltingly close. Daldry's conceit is to suggest that within the family home it is 1912 (the actual period setting of the play) while outside it is 1945. We are watching the spectres of pre-war ignorance and class prejudice literally receding before our eyes. Meanwhile downstage, the boards run over the edges of the stage and curl up to rough sawn-off ends, and a ruined telephone box at several angles to itself leans against the auditorium wall. It's the disintegration of all the usual order - the play spilling over its bounds.
The prosperous Birling family's meal to celebrate their daughter's engagement is interrupted by a mysterious police inspector who tells them, with barely suppressed fury, of the suicide of a beautiful young woman earlier that day. He goes on to confront each family member in turn with the specific wrong they did to the woman, adding to the chain of consequences that led to her death. After the revelations are completed, however, and the moral message has supposedly been hammered home, the family begin to question the identity of the Inspector and his means of attacking them. If he was not legitimate then neither, they conclude, was anything he said.
The genius of the play of course is to deflect our attention from the whodunnit aspect - by the end we are not even completely sure that there existed an individual to whom anything was done - and towards the psychological implications of people's willingness to deny culpability. The Birlings' triumphant sense that they have reasoned their way back to guiltlessness allows them to jettison all the instinctive remorse that the Inspector had managed to bring forth. We are warned not to repeat the mistake, and indeed the Inspector's final words lodge themselves well in the mind: "We are members of one body. We are responsible for one another. And I tell you the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish."
Nicholas Woodeson makes a superb Inspector: commanding, pugnacious, emanating a decency and a quiet horror at this family's breach of sacred moral standards. He is not to be repelled by any means: repeatedly he takes up position across stage from his suspects, spreading his feet and lowering his shoulders, and makes rapid-fire intellectual attacks that the Birlings are unable to withstand. He has an instant rapport with the servant woman and with the street children who hang about at the edges of the action; and when he calls a stop to the interrogation having finally brought all his accusants to their knees, the house lights jump on and in the dull sulphuric yellow, silent supernumeries fill the stage to hear his final speech.
Is he a visitation? A crusading angel? Or just a member of the community who has engineered an incredibly elaborate trap for their consciences? This matters a great deal less than the effect he has. Of the guilty Birlings, Marianne Oldham is particularly good: breaking into almost involuntary spasms of giggles on first being told of the girl's death, before succumbing to the voice of conscience which she eventually tries to re-suppress. And David Roper and Sandra Duncan as the parents also nicely convey their poisonous class prejudice: "you don't look like the sort of man who plays golf" Arthur Birling scoffs at the Inspector, while his wife mocks the "fine sentiments for a girl of that class" that she encountered in the dead woman. It's the throwaway nature of these comments that is shocking; but the Inspector pounces on every one. This production is as urgent, as otherworldly and as real as he is.
Until 14th November
This production has also been reviewed (between 2001 and 2009) by Philip Fisher, Steve Orme, Kevin Catchpole, Pete Wood Sheila Connor, Peter Lathan and Philip Seager. Philip Fisher revisited the 2009 production, now at the Novello.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury