A Beautiful Inspector Discovers More Style Than Substance
The responsibility that we all have as human beings toward our fellow human beings is illuminated and exaggerated into the dark parable An Inspector Calls playing now at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Written by J.B. Priestley in 1945, and set in a fictional British town in 1912, the story takes place in real time as the wealthy Birling family is visited by a mysterious inspector who informs them that a young woman has committed suicide and they all may have had a role to play in it.
Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), a less than subtle surrogate of the conscience of society, is equal parts scornful and didactic with somewhat questionable motives. He eviscerates the family one by one in what appears to be a calculated attack against them. The question quickly becomes why, why is this inspector so insistent on discovering what happened to a girl who took her own life? Can someone else be culpable of another’s suicide? Perhaps morally, which means, dramaturgically speaking, at least, that this play is a world where morality is king. And if that’s true then what are we meant to glean from this piece? What does the writer want us to take away? Let’s examine the facts:
We first meet the Birling family in the middle of an engagement party between the eldest son Gerald (Andrew Macklin) and his girlfriend Shelia (Lianne Harvey). The excitement of the night is disrupted when the inspector appears and begins to question everyone in the family about their involvement with the deceased girl.
Along with younger brother Eric (Hamish Riddle) and parents Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) and Arthur (Jeff Harmer) the entire party is confronted with and eventually confesses to their own dismissive experiences with the girl. The question begins to be raised as to who was the most responsible for the girl taking her own life, and the culpability seems to switch with each new confession. The play devolves until the family breaks down and secrets are revealed as well as just plain bad intentions toward the girl which were either based on class differences or just plain jealousy towards her, leaving the family facing their own morality and worth. When a sudden twist gives the family hope that they may not be responsible for the girl’s suicide, the question of whether or not their own behavior is forgivable, solely based on whether fatal circumstances occurred, allows the play to veer toward a truly bewildering climactic final moment.
So the family, who are wealthy and represent a sort of disdain for the lower classes, serve as a metaphorical society acting solely on self interest and not at all for the betterment of society as a whole. The girl and the inspector are both symbolic of socialism. The moral of the play seems to be leaning toward the socialist idea that we are all responsible for the welfare of one another, and that our morality is connected to each other. If that’s true, then we must also take away from this piece the fact that upper class society is absolutely ill-intended and the lower class is nothing but a victim of their hubris and disdain. The play is too abstract and absolute at the same time for there to be any other reasonable conclusion. The poor girl who died had it rough and the family that may have helped kill her aren’t really all that interested in anything but themselves.
Director Stephen Daldry, who mounted this production for the National Theatre in 1992, has some fancy tricks up his sleeve, including designer Ian MacNeil whose glorious set is at once intimate and atmospheric. Daldry also uses a handful of extras to represent the bottom rung of society as people who are voiceless but watch the action of the play as almost second-class citizens. This heightens the already obvious metaphor of community versus self and the need for the upper class to only consider the latter. So we’re left with a stylish and very impressive looking piece of political theatre that resonates still because of the gap between the rich and the poor, but leaves plenty to be desired in the way of nuance and artistic innovation. It’s a bit on the nose, with an ending that serves to only reiterate the point that rich people will only think about themselves, and that society is worse off because of it. A statement that is being proven more and more true, but perhaps could be a little more clever.
This production is entertaining and flashy enough to keep anyone interested, and the cast is largely responsible for the success of the evening. Everyone involved is at the top of their game, and some of the actors sink their teeth into the awfulness of their characters to the point of adding much needed humor at just the right moments. What we’re left with, though, is a bit of a flashy piece of entertainment that must have been groundbreaking when in premiered just after World War II, and is a giant metaphor about something universal, sure, but ultimately just further evidence that theatre is way behind film and television where stories are taking risks and presenting new material that challenges and excites. This is dated and under nuanced material, that sort of confounds in the end, but it looks exquisite.
The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production of J. B. Priestley’s Classic Thriller AN INSPECTOR CALLS
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard Beverly Hills, CA 90210
TheWallis.org/Inspector 310.746.4000 Box Office
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Ticket Services
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210