Theatre Review: Orpheus Descending - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance and Luke Norris as Val Xavier in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange.
Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance and Luke Norris as Val Xavier in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange.
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As President Obama starts his second term in office, this early Tennessee Williams play reminds us how much has changed in the USA since its original staging – yet how much may well remain the same.

His first version, Battle of Angels, bombed and was banned in 1940. This 1957 re-write still had a mixed reception with its deep rooted red neck racism and deep southern misogyny and xenophobia still proving too much for many theatre goers to accept.

Looking at the struggle between light and dark, right and wrong has never been clearer and its central characters are early studies of what were to become familiar figures in Williams later work.

Imogene Stubbs plays the sensitive but flawed heroine, Lady Torrance, the Sicilian daughter of a “wop bootlegger” who was incinerated in his garden after selling wine to a black man.

Trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man complicit in her father’s murder, she runs their small town hardware store without hope of rescue until enigmatic young guitar brandishing drifter Valentine Xavier (handsome Luke Norris) arrives on the scene.

Add to the stew the wild outcast Carol (by Jodie McNee), a posse of disapproving local womenfolk (Williams’ chorus) and bullyboy townsmen and this has all the making of a modern day Greek tragedy.

The set is stripped to the minimum leaving director Sarah Frankham to guide the lead actors to carry the play’s potency and often unbearable tension between them – and they do so magnificently.

Show comes to an end on November 24.