Welcome to the hellish world of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending. The play is classic Williams: drawing on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurrdice, it delves into death and desire in a world of mysterious strangers and wilting Southern belles. Director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clywd revives this overlooked play in collaboration with London's Menier Chocolate Factory.
By the randomness of fate, square-jawed wanderer Val Xavier (Seth Numrich) is blown into a small backwater town with a dark past on the outskirts of New Orleans. He is given work by sharp-tongued storekeeper Lady Torrance (Hattie Morahan), who has unwittingly married the man who killed her father, the husband now dying upstairs.
Lesser known than Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar Named Desire, it is infinitely darker than both. The evils of segregation, racism and conformity are given extended air-time.
The production draws out the ominous forces that huddle around the play’s edges. Justice is smothered by Ian Porter, who portrays the local Sherriff with outright menace. The community is founded upon fear and loneliness, embodied by a misty, total blackness beyond the porch entrance which swallows characters on entrance and exit.
To cope, Morahan’s Lady has lived in a shell for so long it has become her entire personality, breathing fire when Xavier begins flirting with customers. Val’s animalistic passion transforms Monahan, bringing out an entirely unexpected tenderness, like green shoots blossoming from a stone. This is one of the biggest character shifts of any Williams play, and Morahan (showered with awards as Nora in Young Vic’s 2012 production of A Doll’s House), handles this with deft skill.
But there’s a wild, lost look in her eyes, and she does not convince in her quavering insistence ‘I’m alive once more.’ We’re not sure if she’s blossoming or disintegrating. This is one of the play’s sad ironies: the brighter life’s flame, the quicker death hastens to snuff it out.
The strength of Val and Lady’s relationship, and the speed with which it blooms and dies, seems improbable. Despite effective performances from both, there is little chemistry between Numrich and Morahan. Lady and Val seem forced together for survival, but Williams implies they are also genuinely attracted to each other’s sexual potency. This is meant to burn bright in Val, but Numrich’s portrayal feels less a ‘wild animal’ than a gentle man-child, only truly caring for the guitar which he handles as tenderly as a new-born. The tragic climax comes as an unemotional inevitability. By focusing on the forces of death, this production dims the forces for life.
|What||Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory review|
|Where||Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark St, London , SE1 1RU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Southwark (underground)|
09 May 19 – 06 Jul 19, 8:00 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information|