Orpheus Descending

Review - Orpheus Descending at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The ancient Greek mythical character of Orpheus is all the theatrical rage right now - he's currently on Broadway as a character in Hadestown (that originated at the National), and he's also back on the London stage, too, in the play that Tennessee Williams named after him, as an itinerant musician in a snakeskin jacket who arrives in the small Deep South community of Two Rivers County as something of a fugitive.

He becomes a seriously disruptive life force for the lonely Lady Torrance, a first-generation Italian immigrant whose abusive husband has just returned from hospital to die at home, upstairs from the goods store they run together, and who employs him as her new assistant in the shop.

The play is an alternately bleak portrait of the commodification of human desire in their relationships with each other and a rollercoaster ride towards the possibility of redemption in love. It's weird and overwrought at times, but it is also rather brilliant - Williams, as ever, captures the attention with his deep embodying of the world they are trapped in, with the poetic intensity of the central pairing matched by a beautifully painted canvas of finely-etched supporting characters.

But while the Williams trilogy of masterpieces - A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - get regular theatrical outings on both sides of the Atlantic, Orpheus Descending has only been revived once on Broadway since its original short-lived 1957 premiere there, and was last seen in London nearly 20 years ago at the Donmar Warehouse, when Nick Hytner directed Helen Mirren in it.

Now it is powerfully revived by director Tamara Harvey, in a production originally premiered at Theatr Clwyd in North Wales that she runs, and which earlier this year saw its production of Home, I'm Darling (also directed by Harvey) transfer to the West End. There's no escaping the heavy hand of symbolism that hangs over the play, but Harvey embraces it with an alternately noble and wild Valentine Hanson setting the scene as the narrator-like figure of Uncle Pleasant, reminding this racist, redneck community of their worst fears.

There's treasurable work from, amongst others, Jemima Rooper as another of the town's fugitives, determined to live life on her own terms, and Laura Jane Matthewson and Catrin Aaron as two disapproving gossips. Although Seth Numrich's Valentine appears a little too clean-cut and wholesome to exude the necessary sense of danger, he plays a mean guitar (and sings sweetly, too).

But Hattie Morahan is a vivid, intense presence as Lady Torrance that makes this play as spellbinding as it is unquestionably strange.

Orpheus Descending is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July.

Orpheus Descending tickets are available now.

Originally published on

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