Bringing a classic play back to the stage can be a challenging task, and the weight of it can make itself felt on anyone willing to try. This production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, directed by Stephen Daldry and currently gracing the stage of Cardiff’s New Theatre, is no exception to this norm, but it shoulders the weight without showing the effort too much.
One typical temptation when it comes to presenting classics again to the public might be to change the setting or context, in an attempt to give the play a veneer of novelty or increase its relevancy. This is more often than not a trap – the list of such productions which ended up stripping away layers of meaning rather than adding new ones is lengthy, and not worth offering here. It is good news, then, that An Inspector Calls resists the temptation, sticking to the gloomy English backdrop that the play was meant for. Good because, with its social commentary, this text is quintessentially English, and would neither be as poignant nor make an equal amount of sense in a different setting or epoch; and good because the direction and creatives avoided the easy path to find more inventive solutions to present an engaging take on the play that may still have its share of surprises.
A good part of the unexpected elements comes from this production’s inventive staging. The stage design is elaborate, taking good advantage of the depth of the stage to draw the audience into a section of English street, complete with rain, puddles, and red telephone booth. The centrepiece, however, is certainly the Birling house – if its awkward proportions, with the actors forced to squeeze themselves through a door too small for them, feel disconcerting at first, the feeling fades away as the house shows itself for what it’s truly meant to be: a reflection of the character’s internal states and feelings. As the family descends into turmoil with the inspector’s revelations, so does the house, literally gutting itself open and revealing itself as nothing more than a dolls house, increasingly bleak, overgrown with weeds, to the point of dangerously tumbling halfway down as if in an earthquake, with a very real shattering of china – only to rebuild itself to apparent normality as it is revealed that things might have been not quite as they seemed. There are other, more subtle, symbolisms of this kind achieved by the staging of this production; my favourite might be the choice of a white dress with a long tail for Christine Kavanagh’s Sheila Birling, the most sensitive and sympathetic of the Birling lot – as the play progresses, the tail of the dress becomes increasingly stained from trailing on the floor, a striking symbolism that provides an effective counterpoint to the character’s growing awareness of her faults and flaws.
The performances are smooth and, like the direction, for the most part faithful to the letter of the text; there is a stiffness in the Birlings’ deliveries that suits their characters and shatters effectively in the second half of the performances given by Kavanagh and by Ryan Saunders, convincingly vulnerable as troubled youth Eric. Liam Brennan is understated in a way that suits titular Inspector Goole very much so, landing an additional poignancy to lines that carry their own weight already, and benefit rather than suffer from a plain, simple delivery, allowing the audience a peek into the complexities behind the character’s façade.
This production is a perfect introduction to the play for the many GCSE students who thronged the seats of the New Theatre, and it is perhaps even possible that it had them in mind, among its many other potential audiences. In its loyalty to the text, it presents Priestley’s work exactly for what it is, presenting its message in a way that allows to read its relevance to modern society as well. It might not be the most original or inventive production ever made, but it relies on solid performances and a clever staging to do justice to a work that still has a lot to say – perhaps more now than in the past.
An Inspector Calls is on at the New Theatre until March 14th.