Orpheus Descending at the Donmar Warehouse
A quick recap on Greek mythology. Orpheus was a great musician who could enchant anyone with his lyre, given to him by the Gods. When his wife Eurydice was killed, he descended to the underworld, charming the ferryman Charon and then Hades himself with his music. Hades agreed to let Eurydice follow Orpheus back to the world of the living, on one condition - Orpheus could not look behind him. Need I say more?
In Tennessee Williams' play, hell takes the form of a small and small-minded town in the American Deep South where prejudice, bigotry and violence are daily staples. Lady Torrance (Helen Mirren) is the figurative Eurydice, a woman trapped in a hate-filled marriage whose now critically ill husband Jabe (unbeknownst to her) led the gang that killed her Italian immigrant father years before. Lady's only comfort is the thought that Jabe will die soon and the dry goods store which he owns will become hers.
A more immediate comfort arrives when Valentine Xavier (Stuart Townsend), a beautiful drifter armed with a guitar, comes looking for a job in the store. Lady takes him on, in more ways than one, and installs him in a love nest beneath the stairs of Bob Crowley's shadowy set. But the couple's fleeting moments of happiness are fleet indeed. The suspicious rednecks of the town smell blood, and they issue Val with an ultimatum -leave before sunrise or never see another sunrise again.
Mirren gauges Lady's tenuous transformation - from a bitter, closed woman to one made soft and hopeful through love - just right. And Townsend, with his soft voice and smouldering eyes, is an easy Orpheus to be enchanted by. 'Everything you do is suggestive,' Lady tells him and you have to agree, even if Val doesn't intend it to be.
Saskia Reeves and Julia Swift are touching, too, as the town's other misfits, a wild child and a visionary housewife, ground down by the iron-fisted powers that be. And amongst the local bigots and gossips, Sandra Dickinson stands out as the most entertaining, while Richard Durden as the stricken Jabe, his skin 'yellow as butter', presents more than a ghost of a threat.
But fine performances or not, whether you enjoy Orpheus Descending will depend very much on your Tennessee Williams threshold. The playwright indulged in melodrama like no other and this, his first and most autobiographical play, bears all the hallmarks of that approach. While Nicholas Hytner's direction is subtle and restrained, it can't succeed in excising the more extreme passages which are, frankly, cringe-worthy.