My first experience of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play An Inspector Calls was — as I imagine it will be for most people these days — studyinging it for GCSE English. We read the play in class, we watched the BBC’s television version from 1982 — but I never actually saw it performed. Until now, that is, because a production is currently on tour.
For those unfamiliar with the play, it is set in 1912, in the house of Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist. As the play begins, the family is celebrating the engagement of Birling’s daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, whose artistocratic family own a competitor firm of Birling’s. Into the happy gathering comes one Inspector Goole, there to question the family about the death of a young woman who was taken to hospital having drunk some disinfectant. Over the course of the play, it transpires that each person present contributed to the chain of events that led the girl to take her life — though they disagree about how guilty it makes each of them. And then come the final twists, that turn what has gone before on its head — and back again.
Having only seen the TV version, which sticks pretty closely to the printed script, seeing Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls (which, I learn from the programme, weas first staged in 1992) came as quite a shock. It begins with air-raid sirens, and children dressed in 1940s garb running up on stage and tugging at the curtain — which then rises to reveal (in a mightily impressive piece of theatrical effects) that it is ‘raining’ outside the Birlings’ house. The thing is, the play is set entirely in the Birlings’ front room; yet in this production, the family are enclosed in what is effectively an oversized dolls’ house. I was concerned that we’d never get to see them properly; but, when Birling asks the maid to ‘giive us some light’, that’s the cue for the house to open out, in another very striking display.
What’s the reasoning behind this elaborate stagecraft? It has to do with one of the key messages of the play: that the Birlings’ complacent attitude that we shouldn’t be responsible for each other was disproved by subsequent history. The programme notes explain that, although it’s 1912 inside the house, the outside represents 1945; and, when the Inspector (who mostly stays outside) draws out the occupants for questioning, they’re stepping into the future, as it were — being made to face the consequences of their actions and views.
I like the idea and, as noted, am impressed with the effects (I haven’t mentioned the most spectacular of all, to preserve the surprise); but I can’t help thinking that the production lays the message on too thickly. It seems to me that the play as written works by demonstration: it shows the shortcomings of the opinions it criticises; and the characters who insist on keeping those opinions make fools of themselves, whilst those who change their minds emerge from the interrogation with more dignity. But Daldry’s production seems too keen to tell its audience the message, as loudly as possible — in some senses, literally so.
The lines in this production are ovten delivered overly ‘theatrically’ — quite why, I’m not sure. Sometimes this works: Sheila (played by Marianne Oldham) initially resembles the Queen Elizabeth character from Blackadder (or, come to think of it, the vile niece Millicent from Blackadder’s Christmas Carol); but she is the character who learns the Inspector’s lesson best of all, and her manner becomes more sober and serious as time goes on. It’s entirely appropriate there.
But sometimes the effect of the delivery is jarring. Louis Hilyer’s Inspector Goole often shouts his lines in a way that robs them of subtlety; and, when he faces the audience (as the characters in this production sometimes do when addressing each other) to deliver his final monologue prophesying ‘fire and blood and anguish’ if we don’t heed the error of our ways, it feels like what (in effect) it is — a lecture. These unusual methods of delivery aren’t accidental (they’re referred to in the progarmme notes); but whatever their aim is, they didn’t work for me.
So, this was certainly an unexpected interpretation of An Inspector Calls, and I do wonder what my impression of the play would have been had I known absolutely nothing about it beforehand. As it is, my impression is that this production isn’t entirely successful, can be infuriating and entertaining in equal measure… but I’d still recommend you go and see it.