An Inspector Calls is set in 1912, which is, not coincidently, the year that the Titanic went down. The family that’s portrayed is of a class that is really what the British Empire was all about, and they live in a fictional town called Brumley, which is a mix of Bradford and Bingley. The head of the family is a hugely successful northern businessman.
The play is set on the day when the daughter of the family is celebrating her engagement to the young heir of a rival business in the area. Suddenly there’s a ring at the door and an Inspector arrives, asking them about the suicide of a young girl who died from drinking disinfectant. It turns out that this young girl worked in the father’s factory and gradually, as the Inspector questions them about the girl, their lives start to unravel.
Stephen Daldry sets the play in two different time zones. The character of the Inspector is dressed in a Demob suit from the Second World War, so he turns up in a different period to when the play is set. There are two time periods at work - 1912 and 1944 - and they both speak to each other. The Inspector's outfit suggests he is somebody who has suffered the consequences of that monumental period in European history.
I remember going to see a production of Inspector Calls when I was still in drama school. I found it stupefyingly tedious since it was done like an Agatha Christie. But Stephen (Daldry) does it the way the author intended, much more conceptual, and true to the spirit of the play's original production in Moscow. I suppose there are always people who will absolutely hate it, because it’s not naturalistic; but it's realistic, which is the important thing.
I first played Inspector Goole on Broadway 15 years ago. Returning to it now, I’m amazed how some things have changed and some things haven't. There are certain issues that I remember not quite solving the first time, which are now quite easily solved. It was actually quite a tough gig back then because I took the role over without many rehearsals. That's how it works on Broadway - you get a few days with the stage manager and then you get on stage. It was a very challenging production to do that with, because it’s lit in a very uncompromising way, and the floor stage is quite an obstacle course. It was a tough nut to crack.
In reviving it, we all worked very hard to ensure that the arteries of the production have not hardened, that it’s fresh and the actors remember to stay in the present. It's vital it remains current, even if technically it's exactly the same production as we did the first time round. After all, good drama is like good music; if you go to hear Beethoven’s Ninth, you’ll hear Beethoven’s Ninth. What’s interesting and what matters is that it's being played now.
Inspector Calls continues at the Novello Theatre until 14 November 2009.