“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”
Despite being a much-lauded and much-travelled production, and a mainstay of many a GCSE English Lit exam, An Inspector Calls has completely passed me by until now, my first engagement with this play. Time and the Conways at the National was my first Priestley play earlier this year, so I was interested to see another of his plays, especially one so well known. Representing the other side of the coin was my companion for the evening, Aunty Jean a former English teacher who knew the play inside out, so we had the makings of an intriguing night at the theatre.
JB Priestley’s period thriller, adapted here by Stephen Daldry, opens in 1912 with the self-satisfied Birling family celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. Oozing wealth and pomposity, Arthur Birling takes the opportunity to share his theories on money and success along with the glories of being on the right side of the social divide. Interrupting this cozy evening strides Inspector Goole, who informs them a young local girl has killed herself just hours before. As he quizzes them about her sacking, pregnancy and suicide, the previously composed family gradually falls apart as various revelations about their involvement with the girl come to the surface and how each of them contributed to her downfall.
The set is a sight to behold with an exaggerated sense of perspective adding a disorienting effect, but the Birlings’ house is really something else. Throughout the play, the house visually represents the fortunes of the family in a way that took me completely by surprise! Perched on stilts, with dolls-house dimensions, the house perfectly exemplifies the social hierarchy that affords the Birlings’ their upper-class arrogance and lack of a sense of responsibility. And this is what really shines through in this production, is the indictment of the way in which the upper and middle classes have treated their working class brethren.
Less clear to me was the setting of the play in different time periods: I think we reached the consensus that although the family and their house were in 1912, the rest of the set, and so the world that the Birlings were interacting with was actually 1944 (when the play was written), suggesting that the actions of society in 1912 were responsible for the terrible events of the two World Wars. Although looking back on it, I wonder whether Daldry’s intention wasn’t to indicate simply that the upper classes hadn’t learned their lesson even then.
Still, this was a surprisingly enjoyable evening out. Strong ensemble acting, stirring Hitchcockian music, and the noir-ish staging made this an impressive production, with a timely reminder that we must never forget our social consciences and the way in which we treat those around us, especially those less fortunate.