Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange

On Saturday night we travelled over to Manchester to watch the latest production at the Royal ExchangeOrpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. It’s one of his lesser known plays, first staged in 1957. It’s essentially a rewrite of an earlier play, Battle of Angels, from 1940.

Typically for Tennessee Williams the play is set in a small town in the Deep South of the USA, characterised by sexual frustration, narrow mindedness, xenophobia and racism. The action takes place inside a general store owned by Jabe Torrance and his wife, Lady, the daughter of an Italian immigrant murdered by a gang of local men (Klansmen?)  for serving wine to black men.

The plot essentially transfers the Greek myth of Orpheus to the Deep South. Lady is trapped in a loveless marriage with the seriously ill Jabe (who, unknown to her, was implicated in the murder of her father). And then, one stormy night, a young musician, Val arrives. A relationship develops, but, as we might expect, it all ends in tragedy.

There was a large cast, with the majority of the roles for women. However, most were minor parts, with some of them only appearing for a relatively short while. I’m sure more could have done to achieve more effective interaction between the different characters. As it was the play was essentially a two hander with a large number of supporting parts. But that was the fault of the playwright rather than the Royal Exchange.

So most of the cast didn’t have much opportunity to shine.  But one who did was Imogen Stubbs playing the lead role of Lady. She was nothing short of magnificent. The part could easily have been played melodramatically and over the top, but not by Imogen Stubbs, who made Lady a believable, complex character. She came across as strong, yet tragic; hard, but tender; trapped, but capable of plotting her escape.

There were strong performances too by  Jodie McNee as Carol Cutrere and  Mark Lewis as Lady’s husband, Jabe. Carol was an outcast, a wild woman. A Cassandra character predicting tragedy who was ignored (Tennessee Williams mixing up his Greek myths here!). Jabe wasn’t on stage for much of the play. A brief appearance during the Second Act returning from hospital in Memphis and then spending most of the play offstage, invalided in bed, but then returning in the last Act with a bang.

So, all in all, not one of Tennessee Williams’ strongest plays, but a good production, made special by the performance of Imogen Stubbs.


Pictures from the Royal Exchange Flickr site


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