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Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams At The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester

Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester until 24 November

There’s a shop and there’s a procession of gossips and misfits and a sense of small town boredom and people just killing time.

And into the store walks a man with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar. He’s just killing time too, wondering if he’s too old to stay on the road.

In Orpheus Descending, the store becomes the claustrophobic ‘underworld’ and Valentine Xavier (played by Luke Norris) is the wilful Orpheus who is taken ever deeper into a netherworld of damned souls – that is the townsfolk, ostracised or atrophied, mired in longing, or guilt, or grief, or hatred, but surviving – just – in a twilight world, amid the stench of corruption.

At the heart of Orpheus Descending is the battle of wills between the footloose guitar man and Lady Torrance (Imogen Stubbs), the feisty, independent-minded store keeper who has a sick husband confined to bed upstairs and who is haunted by a terrible event in her past that she can never forget.

From early in the play, an interlude of ritual and chanting draws us to focus on the fact this isn’t a mere domestic drama – and that this place mustn’t be taken at face value – as it will emerge as an intense, all-consuming world of it’s own, full of passion and prejudice, and dripping in the humidity of the deep south, as you’d expect in a Tennessee Williams play.

A memorable performance was provided by Jodie McNee as Carol Cutrere.  We encounter her early in the play in a state of bare-footed languor, wearing what looks like a man’s trench coat, as she hogs the telephone at the store.  She’s the prophetess figure –

wild-haired, spitting invective, used and abused and ostracised by the locals, banned from being in the town at night, and doomed not to be listened to.

It’s a play with strong references to race, reflecting the values of some of the protagonists. And, as if answering the bigoted characters in the play, this production of Orpheus Descending is wrapped in the haunting tones of electric blues guitar, played from the gallery, striking notes of tenderness, regret, tension and foreboding, which help punctuate and sustain a long play (2 hours 40 minutes) which demands commitment from its audience.

The central characters, played by Imogen Stubbs and Luke Norris, delivered the goods in this production, by capturing the audience, drawing them into the ‘underworld’ of  their tormented lives and making them witnesses to the final, shocking denouement.

Orpheus Descending rewarded the effort and concentration it took to engage with it – and the reward was the alchemical experience which keeps people going to theatres – that of making us suspend disbelief and leading us – just like Orpheus in the Greek myth, and just like the characters in this play – on a transforming journey.

Orpheus Descending runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre in St Ann’s Square, Manchester until 24 November.

The Box Office is open for phone bookings from 9.30am to 6.15pm and for in-person ticket sales until 7.30pm, Monday to Saturday, and from 11am to 5pm on Sunday.

To contact the Box Office telephone 0161 833 9833.

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