Review: Orpheus Descending, Royal Exchange

“I’m not interested in your perfect functions”

It is often the case with lesser performed works by well-known playwrights that there’s a reason why they don’t occupy the same place in the canon, and so it was with this production of Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play Orpheus Descending which I managed to squeeze into the end of a hectic work trip to Manchester. It is unmistakeably his work: elements like the oppressive heat of the Deep South, repressed passion and a mismatched couple are present and correct. But there’s also a lugubrious pace and a patchwork quilt of superfluous supporting characters which helps to explain its relative obscurity.

Lady Torrance is an unhappily married Mississippi store-owner whose head is well and truly turned with the arrival of handsome young drifter Val. He’s escaping his past but finds himself in the most stifling kind of narrow-minded community as they react against him. At the same time though, he offers the potential of a way out for Lady who dares to dream of a more liberated future, but the constraints of her present circumstances and the ever-powerful echoes of the horrific past mean nothing is easy.

Though she creates a highly evocative soundscape through Peter Rice’s sound and Trevor Michael Georges’ bluesy music, director Sarah Frankcom sadly does little to address the slow pacing of the play, the first half stretched out interminably as a revolving door of inconsequential characters waft in and out and the plot unwinds incredibly slowly to the point where the lack of connection was a little too visible on the faces of this Royal Exchange audience, the richness of Williams’ lyrical dialogue spread a little too thinly across a too-large ensemble, its nature a little too elusive.

But as we get closer to the nub of the matter, the intensity does pick up and the inevitable tragedy of the ending does become involving. Imogen Stubbs is excellent as the second-generation Italian immigrant Lady (though almost waylaid by the hugeness of the Accent) and builds up a deeply sexy connection with Luke Norris’ attentive Val, there’s great skill in the way that the character is gradually layered up by both Williams and Stubbs that almost, almost, makes up for what has gone before. And there are some performances which stand out from the supporting whirl: Jodie McNee, Alexandra Mathie and Simon Wolfe all manage to conjure a vividness that sticks in the mind.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 24th November

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