BWW Review: ORPHEUS DESCENDING, Menier Chocolate Factory
Theatr Clwyd's latest co-production with the Menier Chocolate Factory takes on Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending. Last seen in London at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000 starring Helen Mirren and directed by Nicholas Hytner, it's now presented by Tamara Harvey in slightly bizarre form.
Lady Torrance's life is disrupted when drifting musician Valentine Xavier arrives in town. Framed by the picturesque (and very racist) vibe of the Deep South, an abusive, ill husband who's come home to die, and a variety of gossiping characters, she struggles with desire and duty as she takes care of her general store.
Running over two hours and a half, it's almost an exercise in drama that toys with reality but fails to be entirely convincing. Valentine Hanson, who plays Uncle Pleasant, acts as a sort of narrator throughout, outlining some of the textual directions and blurring the lines between the audience and the stage. The fourth wall breaks a couple of times unexpectedly, but the show's tone wobbles too much for it to be a sound choice.
The director fights with the play's sluggishness but doesn't manage to tighten it up effectively, which results in a slow pace. There are echoes of Rebecca Frecknall's Summer and Smoke - from the attempted smoky and rural atmosphere to the rather spartan set design by Jonathan Fensom - but this piece lacks the punch and grit of its long-lost sibling.
There's a lack of initial chemistry between Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich, who play the main characters. Harvey's direction somehow doesn't create any tension and is slow to spark the connection. They construct their personas finely and give riveting performances in their own right, but there's a gut-driven force missing between the two.
Tim Mascall's lighting design accompanies the narrative in its atmospheric jumps, turning into one of the most interesting aspects of the show. One feels the personalities that surround the unfortunate couple and draw the panorama for the events are far more fascinating than the main storyline: Jemima Rooper gives an intriguing Carol Cutrere, a rebel who lives live on her own terms; Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson are the delightful gossips of the town; while Hanson himself is a commanding presence as he personifies their deepest fears.
Harvey centres the thematic line on racism, bigotry, and intolerance, inadvertently (one assumes) toning down Williams' passionate and galvanised energy with an experimental vibe that shuffles real life and fiction.
Photo credit: Johan Persson