Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory, review: a reminder of how much we owe Tennessee Williams

Hattie Morahan as Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending - Johan Persson
Hattie Morahan as Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending - Johan Persson

We’re enjoying a rare burst of imaginatively re-embraced lesser plays by Tennessee Williams. After Rebecca Frecknall’s revelatory rendering of Summer and Smoke and ahead of The Night of the Iguana in the West End in July comes Orpheus Descending (1957), not seen in London for almost 20 years. If there’s a line that links them all – and that sums up so much of what draws us to Williams – it’s to be found in the latter: “We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.”

These words are spoken by Valentine Xavier – a 30-year-old drifter and charmer who arrives in a Southern dry-goods store and stays long enough to bring about sexual renewal and usher in catastrophe. He is lyre-playing Orpheus, from Greek mythology, transplanted to a then contemporary world of American bigotry, fakery and repression.

Originally conceiving the character in 1940, Williams borrowed an ancient template and created his own archetype. Here stands his beloved rogue male – the epitome of animal magnetism, who runs the risk of sacrificial slaughter for reminding humanity of its vital, wilder part. Marlon Brando (the original Stanley in A Streetcar named Desire) played him in the 1960 film version.

With major revivals of this rarity, the laurels usually go to the leading lady, taking on the role of the store’s keeper Lady Torrance. She’s a wretchedly married Italian whose father burned to death years ago in an inferno caused by red-necks outraged by his segregation-spurning wine-garden. ‘Lady’ is the Eurydice figure – the wife Orpheus fails to rescue from the underworld – and was played in 1988, to acclaim, by Vanessa Redgrave in the West End, and in 2000, at the Donmar, by Helen Mirren.

Hattie Morahan, who triumphed as the trapped Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Young Vic seven years ago, gives a measured, understated performance, both highly watchful and eminently watchable. Yet praise should also be given to the catalyst – or should that be cata-lust? – of her character’s renewal; avoiding cliché, Seth Numrich lends the artistic lothario an ambivalent sheen of insouciance and wholesomeness.

Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich as Valentine Xavier in Orpheus Descending  - Johan Persson
Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich as Valentine Xavier in Orpheus Descending - Johan Persson

Could more heat emanate from him? Perhaps. Neither player has quite the star-wattage fully to illuminate the purgatorial gloom of Tamara Harvey’s production, nor to save from the odd longueur a text that jolts between exposition and fecund lyricism.

Yet together they forcefully communicate a sense of shared, fleeting awakening. As he presses his fingers into her neck, alleviating tension, Morahan lets a smile play across her lips, eventually arriving at lunging possessiveness. And Numrich grows in stature before your eyes too as she takes him under her wing.

Stoking the oppressive atmosphere of macho violence, small-town gossip and communal desolation a congregation’s worth of characters jostles for attention, some of them very squeezed. But Jemima Rooper shines as a stylish, wayward vagrant; “This country used to be wild,” she laments, “it’s broken out sick with neon like most other places”. In such nuggets you realise just how much we remain in Williams’ debt.

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