On Tuesday the 6th of November, I travelled to Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre to see their production of Tenessee Williams’ ‘Orpheus Descending’. Aware of the huge fan base for ‘Streetcar Named Desire’, but never having actually seen the play myself, I expected an authentic depiction of 50s America, but was unsure how exactly it would be created. On crossing the threshold of the theatre however, I became instantly enlightened. The secret was music. The unmistakeable beat of blues and motown swelled through the foyer, with classics from the likes of John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley. The compilation of drawling vocals told me how the play was going to unfold even before it began. The specific events of the play I was unsure of, but thanks to the live performer on stage, I now felt confident what the main themes were going to be. There would feature the oppression of youth culture, prejudice both racial and sexist, but most importantly the fight for life and liberty through an expressionist culture distinctive to the Southern states of America.
The synopsis told me that the play followed the story of Valentine Xavier, a young, handsome guitar player who wanders into a stagnant community and causes a stir that is just too exciting for the small town dwellers to deal with. He meets a shopkeeper and helps bring back her lost dreams as she somewhat reluctantly falls in love with him. So it was already established before Valentine strutted onstage that he was going to be the Valentine of my dreams for the next two hours and I can honestly say he lived up to his expectations. Plucking my heartstrings along with those of his guitar, spouting out poetry with the smoke from his cigarette, Val swerved form tenderness to frustration with a Johnny Cash-esque charisma. It was the performance from Imogene Stubbs however that really stole the show. As a young woman fairly new to the theatre, I found it uplifting to see her cast off her cynicism along with her headscarf as she found a new valour and enthusiasm for life.
This is a play that really speaks to young people. They can empathise with the two protagonists’ struggle for acceptance. Once hooked in this way it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination for them to empathise with the marginalised black people of this America’s history for the theme of racism is present in the play, but only as a subtle undercurrent. In my opinion this only modernises the play, because racism in our current society is nowhere near as explicit as in Tenessee Williams’ time of writing, but it still exists as a quiet pulse that threatens from time to time to break out on the surface of society. This dramatisation serves as a reminder that xenophobia or prejudice in any form is mock able really, because we all descend from the same origin. This is reflected in the play through many symbolic references to the ‘shedding of skin’ and the ‘chase of the hunt’ and the play’s two most marginalised characters engage in what appears to be a traditional tribal dance. One sports a feather in his cap, the other is barefoot and they both make references to ‘ravens’. Through this abstract performance art, the playwright seems to be underlining how no matter our differences, we all descend from the same origin: nature, and that no matter how far we try to remove ourselves from it, we all share an inner savageness that should unite us as kin, but instead it repeatedly tears us apart.
I’d say this is the perfect production to ease adolescents everywhere into the exciting world of theatre. It’s a play that demands a place on the stage for those who are usually forgotten and allows them to let their voices be heard and if that doesn’t appeal to out suppressed generation then I don’t know what does.