Review: Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory

Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending may not be his greatest play but Tamara Harvey’s production for the Menier Chocolate Factory proves most affecting in the end

“What on earth can you do on this earth but catch at whatever comes near you, with both your fingers, until your fingers are broken?”

Any project that tempts Hattie Morahan back onto the stage has to be worth checking out (qv Anatomy of a Suicide, A Doll’s House, but maybe let’s not mention The Dark Earth and the Light Sky). Orpheus Descending, a Menier Chocolate Factory & Theatr Clwyd co-production directed by Tamara Harvey, proves no exception, bolstered by the presence of the ever-excellent Jemima Rooper in the cast, plus a brooding Seth Numrich.

Orpheus… is something of a minor Tennessee Williams work (one I didn’t much enjoy when I saw it at the Royal Exchange a few years ago) but one which feels stronger here. Navigating the stifling heat and social strictures of smalltown Deep South in the 1950s, Lady seeks escape from her loveless marriage and small-minded neighbours. And in the arrival of handsome drifter Val Xavier, it seems she might have found it – doesn’t it?

The decision to have the stage directions read aloud lends a poetic beauty from the off, but where Harvey really excels is in evoking the suffocating mentality of pettiness and backbiting that so often characterises the disenfranchised, demonstrating how pernicious attitudes can flourish even in environments full of the oppressed. Racism and misogyny are the flavours of the day here, as women with no rights turn viciously on those who break the social code by even looking at ‘outsiders’ and men, most men, well they fulfil every lowest expectation as per, whether in a Williams play or not. 

And as ever, it is the hope that kills you. Morahan and Numrich circle each other ever closer in a beautifully compelling manner, his gentle charm peeling back her natural defences layer by layer, infusing her with the joys of life once again mainly by virtue of just not being a dick. Rooper brings real heart too to her wrong’un Carol, especially in the face of the vindictiveness of the likes of Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson as the townsfolk with their sharp tongues. And as tragedy strikes, as it must, it is impossible not to be affected, even if the writing that has preceded it doesn’t always necessarily merit it.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Orpheus Descending is booking at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July

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