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The Theatreguide.London Review

Orpheus Descending
Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre   Summer 2019

One of his lesser-known plays, Orpheus Descending is Tennessee Williams at his most intensely lush, sensual and symbolic. It is not just a play full of over-the-top emotions, it is a play whose subject is over-the-top emotions.

And this too-cool and distanced production does too little to capture and communicate that intensity.

We are in the American Siouth, of course, where the women of a small town are set aflutter by the arrival of a handsome young travelling musician.

Everyone from the holy churchlady through the town Bad Girl, and all the twittering gossips in between, reacts – with the temporary exception of the embittered wife of a dying old man.

But of course, as anyone who has ever seen a play or read a book can see from the start, she and the newcomer are bound to be drawn to each other.

The tension of the play arises from seeing how long they can hold out against the inevitable and then what giving in will do to them.

But while we see all this and understand where it's going in Tamara Harvey's production, we feel far too little of it.

True, Tennessee Williams didn't help, by drawing the play in such broad strokes that the characters sometimes approach self-parody. But the task of a director and actors is to make the people and situations real while still capturing some hint of the intense sexuality and operatic passions that are the playwright's vision.

The first necessity would be some sexual chemistry between Seth Numrich's musician and Hattie Morahan's housewife, but there is none.

Each actor conveys important other aspects of their characters – his desire to be more than just a stud, her simmering rage over past injustices. But between the two of them onstage there are no sparks, no sense of either being overwhelmed by love or desire.

The same coolness extends to the background. Williams obviously wants a claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere, with the other townswomen constantly surrounding, intruding and creating a pressure cooker of trapped emotions. But the director just lets them come and go as comic interludes not really affecting the play's centre.

Even Carol Royle as the artist with religious visions and Jemima Rooper as a priestess of hedonism are left to play their scenes in emotional vacuums.

This is the play in which a character speaks the line that Tennessee Williams would frequently quote as his own view: 'We are all of us sentenced to a life of solitary confinements in our own skins.'

Orpheus Descending is about the glory and the danger of those occasions when we do reach out and make contact. And a production that does not make us feel the earthquake of that contact does not do justice to the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Orpheus Descending - Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre 2019