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Orpheus Descending

Tennessee Williams
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance and Luke Norris as Val Xavier Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance and Luke Norris as Val Xavier Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance Credit: Jonathan Keenan

Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending, originally performed in 1957 but based on a much earlier work, is a play by a major playwright that is rarely performed, so a revival by a leading regional theatre company has got to be worth a look.

The play begins in the store belonging to Jabe Torrance and his Italian wife Lady Torrance with the gossiping women setting the scene in Two River County as an intolerant community, suspicious of outsiders or of anyone whose behaviour falls outside expected boundaries. One such person is Carol Cutrere, an emotionally unstable young woman who has been banished from the county after nightfall.

Into the community, Vee Talbott, who has religious visions and feels it is her mission to "save" people, brings her latest project Val Xavier, a man with a past that he is determined to put behind him now that he has reached the grand old age of 30, who is looking for a job in the store. Carol has other designs on him, but Val resists her forcefully.

Lady Torrance eventually brings her husband home from hospital but he is still very ill, and he becomes a looming presence upstairs as events unfold in the shop, banging on the floor for attention. The Lady of the house employs Val and they form a bond that burns with sexual tension but, she tells him, there is to be "no monkey business".

However she opens up to him about being a "Dago bootlegger's daughter" whose father burned to death when some of the locals burned down his orchard for serving a black man (the now proscribed "n"-word makes frequent appearances). Re-opening the store's "confectionery"—a type of bar—is her tribute to her father.

This is Tennessee Williams, so they should not be expected to live happily ever after, but the tragic ending (without giving too much away) is a frustrating one in which the innocent seem to suffer and prejudice and bullying are allowed to prevail. Williams teasingly puts into the audience's minds what they want the outcome to be and then snatches it away from them.

There are a lot of peripheral characters in this play that, at times, are a bit distracting—particularly in the long opening scene when some actors struggle to be understood over the loud rain sound effects—but the central relationship between Lady and Val is quite compelling. As Lady, Imogen Stubbs gives a beautiful portrayal of a woman with dignity and refinement but with a Latin passion and a simmering desire for revenge.

Opposite her, Luke Norris is also passionate and charismatic as Val, often temperamental with moments of great gentleness and of cruelty. He has some lovely scenes with Sheriff Talbot's wife as he talks about the paintings of her visions as her sight gradually deteriorates, in a great performance by Alexandra Mathie, but his actions are misinterpreted by her bully of a husband, played convincingly by Simon Woolfe.

Mark Lewis actually looks gravely ill as Jabe but still has the strength to be domineering and unpleasant. Trevor Michael Georges gives a tender portrayal of the small part of Uncle Pleasant, and he also provides a beautifully subtle soundtrack to the play on electric blues guitar.

This is a play that takes some patience to stick with it in parts, but this patience is rewarded with some powerful scenes. It's also a play that, I think, needs to be seen or read more than once to find the significance of all of the characters, the themes and the Classical allusions that the title indicates.

But while it may not rank as one of Williams's greatest works, it should certainly be much more widely known, and hopefuly Sarah Frankcom's excellent production has helped with this, as well as showing Imogen Stubbs to be one of our finest actors.

Reviewer: David Chadderton