When the Boy sent me the information about this production (and about the ones upcoming), I was super excited – and for a dumb reason. All the shows put on by the Shakespeare Theatre Company this fall have been under 2 hours with no intermission. Basically – movie length, and when they’re done, they’re done. Normally, this is not something to get excited about. But when you are either a) old (like many theater-goers) or b) a new parent who doesn’t get a lot of sleep, this kind of show is really exciting. It means that you can get home at a decent hour after having enjoyed a full theatrical production. It is not quite bite-sized, it’s right-sized. There may be times in the future when I’m totally ready for a double production of Henry IV: Parts I and II on the same night, but now is not that time in my life. Now is the time when I want to enjoy myself, and then get home, feed the baby one more time and GO TO SLEEP. There is no shame in my current game.
Anyways, what’s really nice is when the shows that fit into this mold are ones that are perfectly compact and entertaining. The Comedy of Errors was that way. And the current show at Harman Hall is that way too. It’s one I’d seen as a television production a few years back, but the version on stage here is one that originally was produced in London in the late 90s, directed by Stephen Daldry, who you may know as the director of such films as Billy Elliott and The Hours, and who is most closely associated these days with Netflix’s The Crown. I don’t know if the sets are the same from that earlier production, but the design of this show is extraordinary.
We begin in a curtained theater (of course), and then open onto the rainy streets of some Northern town. And on our street scene, there is what appears to be a sliver of a house, but inside, there are people. The first scene with these people at a dinner party is all fluff and nonsense, and we don’t actually get to see much of it, because all the characters stay inside this play-house sized set for a good 5 minutes before eventually we see a couple, and then before the house opens up. And then, the setting for the play begins to widen – characters are able to roam more freely about the stage, and to use more space, not just the few square feet that were available to them in that tiny house.
And it’s the kind of show that benefits from characters having the space to roam, to move back and forth while they gather their emotions. To be at a distance, and then move closer together when tensions get higher. This cast is very good. Amusingly the Boy made the comment that “these are the best English accents we’ve seen in a while”, which one would hope to be true mainly because this is a British cast! The titular Inspector is a role that doesn’t have as much emotional range as the others – and yet it’s one where his job is to provoke other characters into emotional reactions or confessions. Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole is excellent at this, and also has a wonderful Scottish accent that I could just eat up. Of the rest of the cast, the best is probably Lianne Harvey who plays the newly-engaged daughter of the house, Sheila Birling. Her Sheila is one of the few who seems to have true emotional growth throughout the course of the play, learning, growing and understanding what is really going on and the deeper meaning behind the Inspector’s visit.
And that’s the thing about this show – it’s definitely a moral story disguised as “entertainment”, and very thinly disguised. A young woman with connections to every member of the family of the house has committed suicide, and the lesson that Priestly seems to want to hammer home is that we are all connected, and that members of the middle-upper class and above have a duty to recognize their power (and responsibility) for the lives of those below. It’s a very liberal message, and one that the Boy emphasized to me by telling how the teachers in his high school only really felt comfortable teaching this play once a liberal (labour) government was in power. It’s fairly radical – we depend on each other as a society, we are responsible for each other. Chances are that no one person is responsible for any other’s downfall, but things add up.
In any case, it’s a pretty terrific show. I would heartily recommend seeing it. And for once, it’s not just my local DC folks who have the opportunity – this production begins it’s US tour in Washington, but it will be in other cities beginning in January. Take a look at the link below to see if it will be near you, and if you can enjoy this production as much as we did.
Details: An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestly. At the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Through December 23, then touring the US (Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston).