I once saw Edward Albee speak on a panel with Robert Wilson. Albee described his disappointment when he re-watched the Werner Herzog film Aguirre, Wrath of God. There was a particular sequence, he told us, that was not as beautiful as it was in his memory from the earlier viewing.
Nearly thirty years ago, J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play An Inspector Calls was revived in an exciting production that put its director Stephen Daldry on the map, and on the path toward a very impressive career directing film as well as theatre.
After successful runs on both sides of the pond (including a national tour of the U.S., increasingly rare for non-musicals), Daldry and his designer Ian MacNeil brought the production back to London a few years ago. It opened Monday night at Harman Hall, its first stop on a new U.S. tour.
I saw and admired the production when it transferred from London to Broadway in 1994. It was very strange to see it again. At the same time that it felt even more timely (and more powerful for that), at the same time that the vitalness of its theme was immensely moving to me, I also experienced the feeling Albee described, as I kept reaching back into my faded memory, comparing the current iteration unfavorably with its predecessor.
So I’m here to report that something was missing on the Sidney Harman stage; but also to report that, while I feel sure that it matters, it doesn’t matter sufficiently. This is still a memorable production, and one that reclaimed from relative obscurity a wonderful and important play.
Part of my disappointment is because the play, while impressive and thought-provoking, does contain a surprise toward the end, and it’s the sort of plot turn that plays very differently to those of us who are expecting it than to those experiencing it for the first time.
Because of the surprise element, I’m going to avoid going deeply into plot, but it isn’t a spoiler to give a thumbnail description of the premise: an upper middle class family is enjoying a celebratory dinner that is interrupted by the appearance of a police inspector, come to the house as part of his investigation of the apparent suicide of a young woman whose societal position would seem to make it extremely unlikely that her life would have intersected much with the dining one-percenters.
Daldry has, this time, drawn that family in broader strokes than he did first time out. They verge here on the border of caricature.
Jeff Harmer’s father bellows nearly every line. Christine Kavanagh’s mother drips entitlement. I remember Phillip Bosco and Rosemary Harris as bringing more nuance to their portrayals.
Part of what made that production so effective was the sense that the intruding Inspector was removing a gilded veneer from a family who, though not at all uncomfortable with the systems that sustain their wealth and privilege, didn’t see themselves as so crassly oblivious to the suffering of others as the current family seems to.
Let’s be clear: this is not a knock at all on these actors, who are capably embodying the priorities of this revival production. And although I mourn the extra dimension that I feel is lost by making the family so dismissably vulgar — and although I recoiled at how easy it was for an audience full of their cohort to comfortably laugh at their excesses — I also feel as if the purpose of the play would have landed with more impact if the audience of well-to-do liberals had been confronted with a family that better hid its acceptance of inequality beneath a more convincing sense that they feel as if they are a decent sort; that they should not be easily shrugged-off as so obviously callous.
The most satisfying performance, then, in my eyes, is the son, played by Hamish Riddle. He leaves early on, before the broad strokes of his effete character can become grating; and he then reappears and gets to be the one who disassociates himself from the off-putting entitlement of his family, which he does with passion, providing us with someone on-stage other than the Inspector with whom we can begin to sympathize.
Poor Lianne Harvey, though, as the daughter, is kept too long ping-ponging in and out of that zone of brittle entitlement, and so her gradual self-reflection isn’t as convincing or as moving as I remember it being when watching Jane Adams in her Tony-winning performance.
That’s a problem with the parents as well. Both Harmer and, particularly, Kavanagh have lovely, softer moments, but, with Harris and Bosco, one felt the characters straining more to maintain an illusion of decency. Harmer is so coarse, Kavanagh so imperious, that the audience of donors with whom I saw opening night found it easier to laugh dismissively at the family rather than to be challenged by watching people who behave with a patina of civility.
Kenneth Cranham was the Inspector in 1994, and I feel as if he was also subtler, as he insinuated his agenda into the conversation, than Liam Brennan is here. But, again, Brennan is doing what he’s being asked to do — and his final speech was a thing of beauty. I don’t remember that speech from earlier, but I will remember his rendition of it vividly.
An Inspector Calls
closes December 23, 2018
Details and tickets
I’m sorry to go on at such length about my reservations, but I was frustrated by the shift in emphasis. However, the evening still, it must be said, is magnificent.
Daldry’s production was not only an impressive achievement in its own right; it was also ground-breaking in the way in which it re-examined a 20th Century classic, broke it out of its drawing room confines, and added the sort of conceptual framework that hitherto would only be applied to time-tested classics such as Shakespeare and the Greeks.
I’m not saying that no director had ever done anything like that before, but the commercial success of this production on both sides of the Atlantic was a big step toward allowing greater license in re-imaging contemporary classics beyond productions at institutional or regional theaters. You might argue that it paved the way for the success of, among other things, the Ivo van Hove productions on Broadway of plays by Arthur Miller.
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By populating the stage with silent figures who represent the less fortunate, and by surrounding the opulent home with images of industrial bleakness, Daldry underscores the play’s central theme more powerfully than a conventional production stuck in the dining room would do. The Brechtian element is further accomplished by having the Inspector’s climactic speech delivered straight out to the audience in harsh light, echoing the coda of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
Ian MacNeil designed, as he did in the last millennium, both set and costumes. (The Tony-winner’s father will be well-known to DC news junkies as Robin, the retired host of The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.) The design, lit gorgeously by Rick Fisher, is a work of art in itself, worth, as they say, the price of admission in its own right. And how wonderful to see such impressive theatrical resources used to animate a thoughtful and consequential play instead of a mindless musical.
I vigorously encourage readers not to miss this production. Shakespeare Theatre Company, like the Kennedy Center, has been invaluable in bringing international theatre into town. Too frequently, the runs have been frustratingly short. What a treat for us that An Inspector Calls will be with us through December 23rd.
As long as there is suffering and inequality in this world (and there’s no end, of course, of either in sight), this play will be a powerful reminder to us, the more fortunate folks, of our interconnectedness to the less fortunate, and of our passive complicity in systems that we can never really do enough to mediate and make more just.
However, at this time in our history, and with the headlines we read and the images we see every day, it seems as if An Inspector Calls is particularly pertinent now.
I can’t think of a better conversation to have at the moment than the one Priestley, Daldry, MacNeil, et al provoke, or of a better way to spend your ticket-buying dollars than at An Inspector Calls.
An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley. Director: Stephen Daldry. Featuring Liam Brennan, Christine Kavanagh, Jeff Harmer, Andrew Macklin, Lianne Harvey, Hamish Riddle, Diana Payne-Myers, Chris Barritt, Adam Collier, Chloe Orrock, Beth Tuckey, David G. Curry III or Michael Neyland, Elle Vanzego or Sophie Wood, Holden DuBois or Aksel Moeller, Craig Allen, Madalaina D’Angelo, Acacia Danielson, Richard Fiske, William Goblirsch, Rosemary Regan. Associate Director: Julian Webber. Scenic and Costume Designer: Ian MacNeil. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Music: Stephen Warbeck. Sound Designer: Sebastian Frost. Associate Director (Tour): Charlotte Peters. Company Stage Manager: Dermot McLaughlin. Produced by The National Theatre of Great Britain. Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.