8th November 2012

Orpheus may be descending but Imogen Stubbs is on the rise

Hannah Lawrence reviews Sarah Frankcom’s latest production at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Orpheus Descending.

Five Stars out of Five Stars

I’m not even quite sure where to begin, to be honest. One thing that I can definitely say is that this was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on stage. This performance of Orpheus Descending directed by Sarah Frankcom and starring Imogen Stubbs brought out the bitterness and passion of Tennesse Williams’ play of repression, alienation and small town snobbery in America’s deep south.

It was, essentially, Imogen Stubbs’ performance which particularly stood out. In fact, I spoke to another audience member afterwards who, in an almost trance-like state, simply said ‘Imogen Stubbs was just absolutely incredible’. Stubbs’ portrayal of ‘Lady Torrance’ – the play’s central female character – perfectly balanced the psychological complexity of the character without loosing audience sympathy for a woman caught in a loveless marriage and isolated within a repressive culture. Her performance kept pace throughout, gradually growing in intensity until the final act in which she gave a powerful performance of Lady Torrance’s demise, exposing all her insecurities following her husband’s revelation.

However Stubbs’ performance didn’t stand alone. Luke Norris, playing the male lead Valentine Xavier, matched Stubbs’ committed portrayal. His depiction of a young passionate wanderer created a perfect balance to Lady Torrance’s initial cold and hardened outlook. However as the play progressed Norris began to reveal the fraught complexity behind Val’s initially mystifying demeanor.

The stage setting was also cleverly executed, the use of a circular stage creating a feeling of inclusion for the audience. In fact, some audience members sitting in the pit were so close to the action that at one point they had to move their legs out of the way as a fiery Stubbs stormed towards a topless Val. Here the stage setting not only established the audience less as viewers and more as participators but it also added to the sense that the characters, within their own lives, were being constantly observed by others in society. Here the staging reinforced the idea of characters being under constant social observation; constantly under judgment against pre-established societal conventions.

To an English audience depictions of life in America’s deep-south often contain a certain mysticism. However, the production really brought home the raw side of this American community. The performance dealt with racism in a direct and powerful manner, giving a damning portrayal of the hypocrisy of ‘White America’ and their attitudes towards African-Americans, something embodied in the characters of Dolly and Beulah.

Williams himself described the play as being superficially ‘’the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop. But beneath that now familiar surface it is a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all.” Certainly this performance of Williams’ classic brought out the deeper issues which lie beyond the play’s surface.

Orpheus Descending runs until 24th November at the Royal Exchange Theatre

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