The National Theatre is fast becoming the country's premier venue for gobsmacking audacity, and this is as it should be. Royal Court supremo designate Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil have pulled off the unthinkable achievement of reclaiming J.B. Priestley's play from the realms of banal period whimsy, by making graphic and daring use of the author's games with time.
The Birling family's 1912 dining-room is set in a dosshouse perched precariously above a cobbled post-Blitz streetscape; when Kenneth Cranham's tightly controlled Inspector Goole arrives (in a '40s double-breasted suit) to lay bare their roles in driving a disadvantaged young woman to suicide, it is they, not he, who are the figures out of time, as one by one they step out of their box into a world whose reality they hadn't acknowledged. All aspects of production and design combine to produce a Wagnerian spectacle of the twilight of these bourgeois idols; towards the end, the Birling house literally collapses, spewing débris over the street and leaving the family to grub amongst the remains.
Even the acting styles suggest different periods, with the stiff rectitude of Richard Pasco and Barbara Leigh-Hunt (virtually continuing from her performance in A Woman Of No Importance) contrasting with Cranham's more fluid passions. The programme quotes Thatcher's dictum that "There is no such thing as society" to sum up all that Priestley and his Inspector refute, but Daldry's awesome success revives not just the message, but first and foremost the play itself.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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