If Tennessee Williams knew one thing, it was how to write for, and about, women. His plays always (as far as I can make out) feature a few vulnerable, essentially noble, world-weary, mentally tortured women affected by one lone humdinger of a rough-and-ready sexual male. Think the triangle of Blanche, Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chance and Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth. There will be others, I’m sure.
Orpheus Descending, which was first produced in 1957, after Cat and before Bird, also follows this structure. Lady runs a dry-goods store whilst her ailing husband complains upstairs, when into her life drifts the itinerant musician and ne’er-do-well Valentine Xavier (you couldn’t create a more exotic stage name if you tried). Val has already had knowledge of local harlot Carol, and is also caught playing up to Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife – never a wise move. Nevertheless, (or, maybe, as a result,) Lady invites Xavier to move into a storeroom downstairs in the shop, ostensibly as a clerk and to save on hotel bills, but, in reality, to be engaged on additional duties.
Briefly Lady enjoys a new lease of life. But guys like Valentine never stay in one place too long, and, encouraged to leave town by the sheriff, he makes plans to save his bacon. However, someone else takes matters into their own hands in a surprisingly catastrophic ending, that represents an irrepressible surge of the emotions that have been bubbling under the surface. Whilst it might not be clean and classic, it’s certainly effective; and if you don’t know what happens, I’m not going to spoil it for you!
As the title suggests, the play is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, although I don’t know enough of the Classical story to identify quite where the crossovers lie. I know that Orpheus visited the underworld, so I guess that’s the descent that’s alluded to in the title. Trouble is, if Val represents Orpheus, he never quite gets around to leading Eurydice (Lady, I presume) out of the underworld. Or maybe that’s the point? I’m not going to dwell on it, I’ll leave that to others more intelligent than me.
Designer Jonathan Fensom has very sensibly created a Spartan set, with only a few tables and chairs, a magnificent old till (either beautifully recreated by a workshop somewhere or well sourced by the props department), with the back of the stage enclosed by a decrepit wooden-slatted back screen. This design approach, which allows our imaginations to run riot, is perfect for this kind of play; one that has a large cast of characters and could otherwise get bogged down in trying to present a realistic setting.
Hattie Morahan gives a great performance as Lady; she’s that rare combination of strong and fragile, assertive and vulnerable. Although Lady may be in charge of her business, she’s not really in charge of her life, and Ms Morahan’s portrayal deftly reveals that conflict. She is matched by a very good performance by Seth Numrich as Valentine; a tad clean-cut to be loafing on the road perhaps, but then, appearances can be deceptive. Because he comes across as an essentially decent type, when his transgressions are variously revealed it makes them all the more shocking.
Jemima Rooper is brilliant as the louche and couldn’t-give-a-damn-about-it Carol, face painted with artless excess, someone who’s used whatever it took in order to survive. Carol Royle is also excellent as the slightly deranged Vee, desperate to peek out from under the thumb of her controlling husband, and a lone figure of creativity in an otherwise repressed environment. And there’s a great partnering of Catrin Aaron as Beulah and Laura Jane Matthewson as Dolly, the gossipy locals who love to sniff out any scandal.
In a nicely Brechtian touch, the role of Uncle Pleasant, played by Valentine Hanson, is enhanced so that he recites Williams’ stage directions as an introduction and towards the climax of the piece. Mr Hanson hangs around portentously, on and off during the performance, creating an ominous reminder that there is a world outside. Williams often has a minor, but authoritarian male figure who calls the shots – or at least tries to; here given a strong performance by Ian Porter as Sheriff Talbott. But the whole cast do a great job in bringing this slice of southern melodrama to life.
This is definitely one of Tennessee Williams’ Championship-level plays rather than one of his Premiership big-hitters, but nevertheless this excellent production gives us a good chance to see one of his works that isn’t performed that frequently. Powerful and riveting performances win the day! It’s on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July.
Production photos by Johan Persson