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Orpheus Descending

By Tennesse Williams

Royal Exchange Theatre, 29 October 2012

Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance and Luke Norris as Val Xavier in ORPHEUS DESCENDING by Tennessee Williams. Photo – Jonathan Keenan.

What Williams does here is transpose a Greek tragedy to the American Deep South – and, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, it works.

His people and the American vernacular itself – as also in the work of Faulkner, Welty and Purdy – can carry that weight.

Val Xavier (Luke Norris), the stranger in the snakeskin jacket who carries a guitar (no lyre this time) in his hand, is the catalyst for change, the firestarter.  He ignites passion in the hearts of the womenfolk while bringing a stark light to bear on the town’s fault lines.  At the root of everything is race hatred, the despicable colour line, and it is telling that Val has inscribed the names of various bluesmen at the base of his guitar.

As one of the greatest of their number sang: Don’t you hold your head so high, someday Baby you know you got to die. You got to lay down and…

This was an excellent production, except that the Southern accents falter on occasion.  It’s a curious thing that, while with Shakespeare any accent or setting goes more or less, with American plays there is a striving for accuracy and ‘authenticity’.  You should, ideally, be able to forget about accent and simply hear the words, the question is how to achieve this.  Why not simply speak plainly?  That Williams’ play is as universal as any of the Bard’s is plain, at any rate.

Orpheus Descending, a production definitely worth a look-see, is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 24 November.  Further details can be found here.

And here is Skip James singing Crow Jane.

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