Orpheus Descending at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre: Strange Talk and Snakeskin

Carleigh Nicholls reviews one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser known works Orpheus Descending, a Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatr Clwyd Co‑Production.

“I was touched by your strange talk,” Lady (Hattie Morahan) tells the wandering musician Valentine Xavier in his snakeskin jacket (Seth Numrich). Indeed, Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending has a dreamy, meandering quality about it, and Williams has written a script replete with strange talk. Characters constantly meander into monologues of days gone by, showing how the past continues to inform the present. Although these vignettes appear nostalgic and quiet, a nightmarish quality is always just under the surface of them. Loosely inspired by the Orpheus myth, the southern community of Two Rivers County is a symbolic Hell, filled with racism, hatred, misogyny and gossip. Trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage, shop owner Lady finds new life when Val comes to town. Directed by Tamara Harvey, this Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatr Clwyd co-production of one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser staged works is a powerful and heart wrenching production.

Designer Jonathan Fensom has created a rather bare stage with wooden paneling in the backdrop evoking the setting of the dry goods store. Instead of creating a lavish set, at various moments throughout the production, Uncle Pleasant (Valentine Hanson) appears on stage reciting the stage directions and describing Williams’ detailed descriptions of the setting. This narration works to varying degrees. The narration does not occur every scene, which makes it feel somewhat random when it does occur. However, Uncle Pleasant often appears in the background or in the shadows during transitional scenes, creating an eerie and almost omnipotent presence. 

Valentine Hanson and Jemima Rooper in Orpheus Descending.

This is not a plot driven production; all the power comes from Williams’ words and characters. As such, it is absolutely essential that the cast is right. Thankfully, this production features an immensely talented cast, and the southern accents are spot on. Jemima Rooper as Carol Cutrere is arguably the heart and soul of this play. In a sense, her journey parallels Val’s. Forced to wander, she is the bird that can’t land, but desperately longs to. Viewed by Two Rivers County as a “lewd vagrant,” Carol embraces this narrative and laughs in the town members’ faces, but inside she is desperately lonely.

Rooper masterfully juxtaposes Carol’s garishness and innocence. Hattie Morahan plays Lady Torrance. As Lady yells to Val in a heated exchange, her nerves are shot to pieces, and Morahan plays this expertly. She realistically shows someone who is unhinged from stress and lack of sleep. She bursts into laughter, she snaps angrily, she cries. She desperately needs a break. Seth Numrich plays the wanderer Valentine Xavier, and he has a strong stage presence. Val is a lady’s man, and Numrich connects well with his castmates. While Numrich and Morahan have a deep connection, they do lack some of the necessary sexual tension which is necessary for the story. 

As the town gossip Beulah Binnings (Catrin Aaron) states, “people can live together in hate a long time,” which is an apt description of Two Rivers County. Harvey has brilliantly brought Williams’ hellish, yet sleepy, southern town to life. 

4/5

Orpheus Descending will be performing at the Chocolate Menier Factory Theatre until July 6, 2019.

Photograph credit:P Johan Persson.


Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.

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