“It is the business of the community not simply to glorify itself but to produce better persons, to enrich its individual sphere…”
J B Priestley was a forward-thinking, radical socialist whose political achievements have been forgotten somewhat in the 70 or so years since he was at his most influential in this regard. Today he is best remembered for his works of fiction – such as An inspector Calls – and less so for his ideological breakthroughs in politics and philosophy. But Priestley’s world-view is the very bricks and mortar from which An Inspector Calls is built, and his agenda is still very much evident in the production today.
The recent BBC adaptation of An Inspector Calls will have helped familiarise the play to many more people than will see this touring UK production, and it’s interesting to see the reaction to its somewhat unconventional structure. The unaware will no doubt walk in to the theatre expecting a rollicking good Agatha Christie-style whodunit, but that’s not what you get. Sure, it has the appearance and hallmarks of a traditional murder mystery, but it’s far more than that – and it doesn’t give too much away to say that it doesn’t even deal with a murder, although death and misfortune remain at its heart.
A dinner party attended by upper class twits and their offspring is interrupted by the ominous arrival of police inspector Goole, who proceeds to tear apart the smug, cosy lives of these guffawing prigs by presenting them with some home truths which at first they reject, but then buckle to. There’s Sybil and Arthur Birling, the affluent dignitaries with their eyes on the social ladder (Arthur in particular has his beady eyes on some letters after his name); their daughter Sheila, who is celebrating her engagement to businessman Gerald Croft; and their son Eric, a party animal with little interest in the formal aspirational path his father has worn. Eric is more interested in having fun and spending money.
The arrival of Inspector Goole – who slowly picks his way from the back of the auditorium through the audience to the stage – is presented as something fearful, with splendid lighting from Rick Fisher reminiscent of The Exorcist (a trenchcoated man in trilby stands in silhouette beneath a stark streetlamp). From the outset the audience is given a crumb that not all is what it seems, and the Birling party soon picks up on this too.
There’s some cracking acting. I was particularly impressed by Caroline Wildi’s imperious, formidable Mrs Birling, while Katherine Jack was superb as the daughter whose journey through this play is one of the most marked. Jack portrayed sensitivity and genuine remorse just as well as Wildi got across the ferocity and unwavering self-regard of her mother. The rest of the cast were just as strong, with Hamish Riddle making an energetic professional debut, and Liam Brennan making for a breathless, sometimes surprisingly aggressive, interrogator.
The set is a wonderful, albeit convoluted, centrepiece. The play opens impressively with torrential rain and a dramatic soundtrack that perhaps needs to be turned down a notch or two, but certainly raises anticipation. I won’t give too much away for those yet to see the main set (because it is pretty impressive), but I found it both ingenious and cumbersome at the same time. My initial admiration drained away into mild annoyance after a while, but it kind of works, and certainly makes a vengeful impact 20 minutes from the end of the play.
Ah, that ending. It might be argued there are actually two endings, and this is where I struggle a little with the structure of the piece. I think the way Priestley wrote the play is a little jarring as the climax approaches. You think the play is ending at one point, but it really isn’t, and what follows is 20 minutes of somewhat repetitive dialogue which could get to its point much quicker. The pacing is baggy, but then plenty of room has to be made for Priestley’s propaganda to be sledgehammered into place. Priestley eschews subtlety with exhilarating self-confidence: he wants you to know exactly what he thinks of society and how it should operate, and what role you, dear viewer, should have in the scheme of things. I found it too preachy, but it proves that An Inspector Calls is very much a product of its post-war time. Nevertheless, Priestley’s socialist ideology still stands up today, particularly right now, in the wake of the recent leadership choice by the Labour Party. British politics is once again polarising to the right and to the left, with the middle ground getting slightly abandoned.
During his highly popular but short-lived radio broadcasts of 1940, Priestley told the nation that society should stop thinking in terms of property and power, and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. He advocated a world where people were given opportunities and that every individual is part of a wider society with a responsibility for one another.
Seventy-five years later, I’m not sure society has progressed all that much in the way Priestley would like, but his message remains relevant – just as the Birlings should feel responsible for the guilt Inspector Goole rains upon them for their individual misdeeds, so too should society feel responsibility for itself, and every individual within it.
This is one play that might not sit right with capitalists and Conservatives…
VISITS CARDIFF’S NEW THEATRE, APRIL 12-16, 2016