Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending is a spellbinding play about the ultimate question of existence. While it is very dated and has quite offensive language at times, the message of the play still rings true today and Williams has created a captivating plot.
The story begins in a small South American town that is very much set in its ways. It then follows the developing relationship between Lady (Hattie Morahan) and Valentine Xavier (Seth Numrich). This, however, is a forbidden love due to Lady’s dying husband Jabe, who bought her hand in marriage decades earlier. Two lonely souls come together and try to answer the unanswered questions of life – ‘What if?’ It is steeped in a beautiful metaphor about a bird with no legs, that “sleeps on the wind” and never touches the corruption of the earth, meaning it never faces the harsh realities of life and remains forever free. Williams’ metaphor in act one delightfully plays out as a message throughout the whole play. While the first scene begins with gossip from the ‘busy bodies’ of the town that feel trivial and unimportant, it soon gets to the meaty scenes of human relationships, and therefore becomes much more intriguing.
However, with such a fantastic director as Tamara Harvey (who also did the innovative Home I’m Darling) I had hoped for a fresh take on this old-fashioned play. There is no doubt that is was very much written at a time where racism and sexism were part of everyday life. Today, the language feels jarring and painful to hear at times. I understand that one can’t change too much of the great Williams’ writing, but a few changes would have made the audience sit easier and could bring this old classic into a contemporary light.
Morahan as Lady is exquisite to watch. Her scrappy and haphazard portrayal of a woman beaten down by life is detailed and heartbreaking. Her take on a Lady is cynical to start but then loving by the end, she takes us on a journey that is gorgeous to follow.
Opposite her, Numrich as Valentine Xavier (a young handsome newbie in town) is simply charming. His smooth walk and easy talking at the start contrast greatly with his passionate arguments and poetic words further on in the play. Orpheus’ famous guitar is strung on his back which he plays elegantly, and he has a sweet, resonant voice. Morahan and Numrich have great chemistry, and since most of the play is just the two of them on stage it welcome that they are thrilling to watch.
The ‘town slut’ (Carol Cultrere) is played by Jemima Rooper, a hopeless disheveled character that causes havoc whenever she arrives. Rooper holds the stage excellently, with confidence and charisma that is mesmerising. I truly couldn’t stop watching her on stage, as she owns the space she is in.
Overall, this vintage play (that was actually considered unsuccessful when it first premiered in 1957) is a brilliant piece of theatre. It is a mixture of intriguing questions, stunning acting and poetic writing. While it has scenes that are frantically trivial and seemingly frivolous, they are the backdrop for the truly captivating scenes between Lady and Valentine which are the true moments of gold in the show. Orpheus Descending is a show that begins and ends with a tragedy, and will tug on the heartstrings of many.
Orpheus Descending is playing until 6 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Menier Chocolate Factory website.