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Mr Monkey sees Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange

Mr Monkey looking at the Orpheus Descending poster outside the theatre
Venue : Royal Exchange
Start date: 24th October 2012
End date : 24th November 2012
Visit date : 29th October, 2012
Mr Monkey looking at Adrian Pritchard's Osmosis Machine
Lady Torrance (Imogen Stubbs) makes a point (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)
Mr Monkey braved a cold snap and went into Manchester for the press night of Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

After collecting his tickets, Mr Monkey had a look at the Osmosis Machine. This was devised by artist Adrian Pritchard as part of the Manchester Science Festival, and was intended to create an artwork by pouring some kind of totally safe (as long as it doesn't touch human flesh) liquid called 'gloop' from a relatively great height to pool on the floor. Mr Monkey watched the gloopy strands dripping very slowly onto the floor, and was glad that the machine included adequate warning signs.

When he'd had his fill of the Osmosis Machine, Mr Monkey scampered to his seat, to await the beginning of the play.

Orpheus Descending, Tennessee Williams' seventh major play, was a re-write of an earlier play, Battle of the Angels which went unperformed because a theatre burned down. The play is apparently based on the Greek Orpheus myth; specifically on the versions where Orpheus fails to lead his beloved out of hell and ends up being torn to pieces by a mob.

In Orpheus Descending, hell is a general store in Clarksdale, Louisana, between February and Easter 1957 (two years after the Little Rock, Arkansas, school segregation crisis and the murder of Emmet Till).

The store owner, Jabe Torrance, is dying; his middle-aged wife, Lady, is trying to convert the store into a recreation of her murdered father's wine garden. Val Xavier, a young man with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar, arrives from out of town claiming to want a job, and Lady takes him on. Xavier turns out to be a massively disruptive influence in Clarksdale, where change and youth are not too highly valued, especially by the husbands of the women who patronise the store.

Mr Monkey wasn't at all familiar with the play, but he wasn't totally surprised to find that everything ends rather badly - it is, after all, a Tennessee Williams play.

Val Xavier (Luke Norris) clutches his treasured guitar (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)
Mr Monkey was really impressed by the staging of the play. It starts in a heavy rainstorm, which is effectively evoked by sound effects and a number of windows with rain running down them (the windows are lifted out of sight before before the actual start, which is lucky for anyone who wanted to see the actors). The set itself is a realistic recreation of a small general store, with a counter, pay-phone, stacks of boxes and so on. There's also a wooden staircase, which marks the boundary between Lady's territory and the sick quarters of Jabe Torrance.

Mr Monkey particularly appreciated the skilfully played musical interludes on blues guitar during the scene changes, which added a lot to the atmosphere

Imogen Stubbs pretty much dominates the play with her excellent performance as Lady Torrance. The pace of the play changes with her, gaining momentum as the presence of Val Xavier widens her horizons and her ambitions. Luke Norris plays Val Xavier in a fairly low key manner, smouldering with occassional moments of strutting arrogance. The third of the 'fugitive kind', Carol Cutrere - a woman so disruptive her family pay her to stay out of town - is played by Jodie McNee as a consciously desperate wild child; Mr Monkey suspects her character was written a little over the top.

The three rebels (though it doesn't really take much to be considered a rebel in Clarksdale) get most of the poetic and inspiring speeches. The rest of the townsfolk are more realistic and, generally, less sympathetic, exceptions being Vee Talbot (Alexandra Mathie) and Uncle Pleasant (Trevor Michael Georges). The fact that one produces strange paintings after going into religious trances and the other is more or less mute gave Mr Monkey a clue to Tennessee Williams thoughts about the decent hardworking bigoted townsfolk of the South.

Mr Monkey thinks this is an excellently staged and thought provoking production of a rather grim play, but notes it's probably not for anyone unprepared for language appropriate to the location and period.

Orpheus Descending runs until December 23rd 2012.

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