“Every moment between them is overflowing with nuance and tension, with a beautiful unpredictability as to how their relationship will develop”
The stage directions in the plays of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are notorious for their length and level of detail – to actors, directors, and designers they can often feel like micromanagement of every aspect from the writer. Tamara Harvey’s production of Orpheus Descending defies the demands of the stage directions by instead having Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant speak some of them aloud. Amongst an unfocused opening, this comes off as a somewhat baffling choice, but key moments transfigure the function of the directions by weaponising them to make a stern point about the cyclical nature of hatred and fear within small-town communities, creating a rich and layered tapestry that delves directly into the human heart.
The titular Orpheus of Orpheus Descending is Valentine Xavier (Seth Numrich), a guitar-wielding, snakeskin-wearing drifter who has ended up in a small Southern town and is looking for work. Conveniently, Lady Torrance (Hattie Morahan) needs an extra hand at her general store since her husband Jabe (Mark Meadows) has fallen ill and although she’s reticent to employ an outsider, her decision to do so takes both her and Valentine on a passionate and ideological odyssey – albeit one threatened by the animosity from the rest of the town towards Valentine. The play grapples with a lot of hefty themes and ideas, chief among which seemed to be an exploration of outcasts and belonging – the clash of the townspeople who immediately dislike any intrusion into their tight-knit community with the free-spirited and open-minded nature of Valentine exposes the prejudices embedded into society and how can they affect even those who thought they were safe. In many ways, it operates as a microcosm for wider society and – sadly – still bears a lot of relevance today.
There are universally excellent performances on display here – even minor roles like Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott and Carrie Quinlan’s Nurse Porter carry a depth and gravitas that enrich the texture of their actions and dialogue. Jemima Rooper also does an incredible job as Carol Cutrere, another outcast whose circumstance and attitude serves as a smart counterpoint to Valentine. However, the abundance of praise must go to Numrich and Morahan as the central pair – the dynamic between the two is like a injection of rocket fuel directly into the bloodstream. Every moment between them is overflowing with nuance and tension, with a beautiful unpredictability as to how their relationship will develop; it’s never anything less than a total joy to watch the two interact.
Harvey’s direction and Jonathan Fensom’s minimalist design keeps the focus firmly on the performances, which is probably for the best given that there are so many – there are thirteen actors in the play, which results in an opening that’s quite chaotic and messy. It makes you wish the creative team had been as bold with presenting the most focused version of the play as they had with the stage directions, because once it does hone in on Valentine and Lady, Orpheus Descending is hauntingly seismic.
“despite the epic themes, the staging of this production lends real intimacy to a thousand seat venue”
Almost before Trevor Nunn’s “Fiddler on the Roof” opened last December at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it had ‘West End Transfer’ stamped all over it. Tickets were almost impossible to come by during its four-month run, but those disappointed will do well to move fast to catch its inevitable, yet richly deserved relocation to the Playhouse Theatre. The shift to the larger space has lost none of the intimacy and passion: there is always the fear of over-projection, but the subtlety and attention to detail of this production is beautifully intact, gently immersing the audience into the small Russian village of Anatevka in 1905.
Designer Robert Jones’ set – a ramshackle Jewish shtetl – spills out into the auditorium; the smokey darkness of the crooked wooden buildings backed by a foreboding bank of bare woodland, yet overlain with folk-tale lanterns and Tim Lutkin’s time-shifting lighting that conjures both the chilly light of an uncertain dawn with heart-warming twilight. A true reflection of the town folk’s stoicism in the face of their impending resettlement.
Based on the stories of one of the most famous and beloved of all Jewish writers; Sholem Aleichem, the story centres on Tevye, a poor Jewish dairyman, forever questioning ‘Tradition’, and the mysterious ways in which God moves. A patriarchal figure, his refusal to bend to the changing times is slowly eroded by the strong-willed actions of his daughters, who rebel against the custom of arranged marriage and choose to marry for love. Although he never quite lets go, Tevye’s grip on his heritage is increasingly fragile. Andy Nyman gives a stunningly natural and captivating performance of this central role. Whilst making light of his plight with precision-timed quips and asides, we are also continuously aware of his fear of the threat of exile and, more poignantly, his love for his wife and daughters.
Judy Kuhn, as his wife Golde, is the perfect complement that no Matchmaker could cap. Their onstage chemistry evokes the hard-won intimacy built from the ups and downs of a twenty-five-year marriage; culminating in the tender self-realisation of their duet “Do You Love Me?”. In fact, the entire company do wonderful justice to Jerry Bock’s sumptuous score, with a sensitive, but never sentimental, interpretation of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. Molly Osbourne, Harriet Bunton and Nicola Brown as the daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava respectively give heartfelt performances, accentuating the satire often missed in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”. The choral numbers are sung by the company quite beautifully, an inevitable highlight of which is the achingly angelic “Sunrise, Sunset”.
But beneath this musical portrait of family and community is the solemn undercurrent of violence, anti-Semitism and persecution; sadly still all too pertinent. Matt Cole’s choreography, paying homage to Jerome Robbins’ original, shows how rapidly high spirits can descend into oppressed chaos, particularly when a vodka-soaked wedding dance is broken by the arrival of a vicious tsarist pogrom at the close of the first act. A threat that is taken to its tragic conclusion in the final scenes.
The human touch easily sits alongside the disturbing historical commentary. Yet, despite the epic themes, the staging of this production lends real intimacy to a thousand seat venue, and by avoiding the temptation to overplay to the rafters the emotional impact touches the heart with much more force. Its message is clear; but what is equally clear is that this is quite simply a triumph of a show. Musical theatre at its best. Matchless.