Orpheus took to the stygian world and upon finding Hades played his lyre and poured out his grief to him. Hades was moved by the sound and told Orpheus he could have his wife back. She was to walk behind him and he was not to turn to look at her until they had both exited the underworld, or she would have to return to Hades. Orpheus was nearly at the exit when he thought he had been duped by the Gods, so he turned, saw Eurydice, and then she returned to the underworld forever. Orpheus tried to re-enter the underworld but could not as a mortal. He died and the Muses saved his head in order that the living would remain enchanted by the beauty of his song.
This Greek myth formed the basis for Tennessee Williams’ lesser known play Orpheus Descending, which is a co-production between my local theatre in Mold, Theatr Clwyd and The Mernier Chocolate Factory in London.
There is often a reason why some plays are performed lass than others. Looking back at the reviews of past productions, the play is not met with much enthusiasm. It has been described as long-winded…it plods along with an extensive cast of superfluous characters wafting in and out of this slow-paced play. It was therefore with some in trepidation that I went to watch this latest attempt to bring this play to the masses. It didn’t help that as I took my seat, an usher came over to me to apologise for forgetting to say the first act was “rather long…it lasts 1 hour 40, but after the break the second act only runs for 40 minutes!”
The stage is at ground level, so the front row of the audience and the actors are on the same level. As the lights go up, Uncle Pleasant (Valentine Hudson) sets the scene for our tragic tale. We are in the centre of a Mississippi store; the owner Lady Torrance is bringing her husband home who is recovering from an operation. Local gossips Beulah Binnings (Catrin Aaron) and Dolly Hamma (Laura Jane Matthewson) are setting up a welcoming party. As they chat and unpack the hampers, we realise Lady was the daughter of an Italian man who sold liquor to some blacks. A group of locals found out and torched his home, his vine yards and his garden filled with little white arbours where folk would drink and party the night away. He died in the middle of the fire; and his daughter did not know that she married the man responsible for her father’s death.
If the townsfolk didn’t like the appearance of Carol Cutrere, it was nothing to their reaction of seeing the stranger Valantine Xavier (Seth Numrich) rocking up with his guitar and snake-skin jacket. To them he’s just trouble, and you already know in a backwater full of jealousy and hatred, it’s not going to end well for him. This type of townsfolk can’t bear to see anyone happy, but Lady (Hattie Morahan) can see a flicker of hope with the arrival of the young man. She dares to dream he could be her ticket to liberation, but she is constrained by her domineering husband and the community, so anything she tries to do won’t be easy.
Williams’ rich dialogue is sometimes hard to listen to in these modern times. Referring to wops and niggers as though they are second-class citizens, dehumanised from the rest of society, but this racial viciousness is necessary. It shows the pettiness, the malice, the hatred of anyone different in the community. This language makes you want to rally against this small-minded clique, to rise up and give them a shake, to tell them to stop being so blinkered. But it also makes you realise that a lot of those narrow-minded, insular prejudices are still in existence, nearly 80 years after William’s first draft was written. Just take a quick flick through Twitter, or even closer to home, private messages full of tittle tattle of mythical proportions, creating melodramas within small circles of friends because people are so insecure of themselves. They have to try to cut down the Carol Cutrere’s of this world to stand half a chance of survival.
Those who have enjoyed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire or Summer and Smoke should not be put off by this lesser known work and instead embrace the poetry of William’s writing and the all-encompassing staging of the play where the actors and audience become one.
Theatr Clwyd Mold 15 April - 27 April 2019
Transfers to Menier Chocolate Factory, London 9 May – 6 July 2019