J. B. Priestley’s most famous play An Inspector Calls has had quite an interesting life. Written in England by an Englishman, it premiered in Moscow during World War II. Although the play digs into the United Kingdom’s social structure and its responsibility, Priestley, a fervent socialist, affirmed there was no appropriate theatre for it in England at that time. A year later, in the idealistic post-war mood that elected liberal Clement Attlee over Winston Churchill, An Inspector Calls was a huge success in the West End. It went on to become a film and even a TV series. But, as the decades went by, the play accumulated dust as a “drawing room” drama, a beloved-yet-outdated piece of literature stiffly studied with no political fervour in schools as one of Priestley’s time plays.
Then came Stephen Daldry in 1992 with the key to that drawing room and an air duster. Beneath the layers of venerated abandonment, he found a vibrant piece relevant to any period of time, pre-war 1912, post-war 1945, post-Thatcher 1992 and today. Some companies revamp classical texts by moving the action to the present, taking it closer to today, sometimes with considerable text changes. I’ve seen Priestley done (in this case Time and the Conways) as an immersive performance in a real-life tiny living room. While all these approaches attempt to contemporize classics by bringing them to the present Daldry’s idea was more subtle. Keeping the play’s original time and setting, he put distance. He set the Edwardian drawing room on stilts, awkwardly on display above the cobblestones of a dark wet street that could belong to any period, but because of the siren that begins the play and the crater in the middle of the stage vaguely evokes war times. There is no illusion of historical accuracy that is normally achieved through a faithful period reconstruction because the setting is all an exhibit. In a frame, the characters lose their unapproachable dated manner and, in their little crooked living room, become objects of our study.
Using full use of theatre’s power, Daldry positions inspector Goole as an usher into this social study. Goole is aware we are in a play, a presentation, and, breaking away from the mysterious inspector thriller trope, he takes on the role of a master of ceremonies. He has the power over the theatrical devices: he can step out of the proscenium arch and order the lights around; he addresses the audience directly and leads the chorus of witnesses on the cobblestone street. By drawing attention to the fourth wall and the theatrical conventions, the distance between action and audience is enlarged only to keep us more and more invested in this investigation.
After fourteen years that have uncovered bold new treatments of the classics,– Van Hove and Butusov surprising audiences worldwide– Daldry’s production is still pertinent and effective. In the program, Al Senter expects An Inspector Calls will have the endurance of The Mousetrap. Daldry’s directorial vision offers a more exciting promise than a “great piece of theatrical history” in the form of a whoddunit (as The Mousetrap is advertised): the evidence that theatre can escape history, by embracing its aesthetic power, living in the eternal now of the stage.
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