In 1945, playwright J.B. Priestley originally saw his “An Inspector Calls,” a masterpiece set in 1912, which thrives off both its mystery and lucidity, come to fruition on stage in the former Soviet Union. And yet 74 years later, its message of being compassionate to one another is still as germane as ever, perhaps even more so than it was right at the close of the unspeakable evil and carnage of WWII. Still, despite our best hopes, much of humanity is lamentably able to insulate and shield themselves against the atrocities that happen to others. Repression is a real thing, as it is the path of least resistance in shuttering oneself from the sobering realization that actions, or rather no actions, have far-reaching consequences that also affect our fellow neighbors.
Having been revived and re-energized by director Stephen Daldry’s savvy vision in 1992, winning four Tonys and seven Drama Desk Awards, “An Inspector Calls” has returned to public consciousness, assisted by Daldry’s direction and a stellar UK cast, where it is now running at the Wallis in Beverly Hills until February 10th. Through its suspenseful and riveting staging, the National Theatre 2018-19 production of the play impeccably impresses upon us how our interconnectedness unapologetically cuts through all classes and barriers and how our responsibility to each other is a reality that can’t be shunned for too long. Certainly, the comfort of fantasy always tears asunder to reveal the inevitable that is to be confronted.
Set in the fictional English town of Brumley, we are introduced to the affluent and carefree Birling family inside their regal home, which is perched over the city in its very own bubble and used to great metaphorical effect — a credit to set designer Ian MacNeil. The flawlessly dressed Birlings (a result of costume supervisor Caroline McCall and her wardrobe team) are celebrating the engagement between their daughter, Sheila, and the son of another well-to-do family, Gerald Croft of Crofts Limited. The Birling Patriarch, Arthur, the owner and CEO of Birling & Co. (a milling business), is doling out advice to his future son-in-law, with one in particular that lingers with the promise of being rebutted with earth-shattering righteousness: “A man has to mind his own business and look after himself.”
Of course, soon enough it is, when an Inspector Goole appears on the scene to inform of the untimely suicide of the once-beautiful and gray-eyed Eva Smith, a.k.a. Daisy Renton, who had recently died by ingesting liquid disinfectant. With one masterstroke of the inspector’s cunning inquiry after another, this fallen girl becomes intensely palpable for she represents the everyday person who toils to make a living and find happiness. At once, it’s as if the Birlings are humbled and made vulnerable to the highest truths, even if only momentarily, by the mirrored reflection of their worst selves.
Incidentally, we’re warned of what is to happen to the Birling clan at the outset of the play when Sebastian Frost’s blisteringly resounding sound and Rick Fisher’s ominous lighting forebode an impending calamity that soon crashes down on the Birlings’ worldview. There is a brief and impressive torrent of rain on stage, but there is also an innocence that surrounds it. This is illustrated by a young boy (Myles Bruno) whose impulsive aimlessness adds some levity and helps demarcate the acts of the play, as well as the Birlings’ hard-working obedient house servant, Edna (portrayed by the ageless 90-year-old wonder in Diana Payne-Myers), who is the family’s only member whose character is left untainted.
The most heroic figure, however, is objectively Inspector Goole. Clad in his brown-rimmed hat and beige trenchcoat, Liam Brennan gives a cathartic performance that is grounded in an unimpeachable certitude and the pursuance of finding justice for Eva Smith. It’s such an enthralling performance that it’s fair to say that Brennan is Goole, highlighted by a fierce fearlessness and an unwillingness to be discouraged by any stonewalling or pretenses. In fact, he barrels right through them, yielding satisfying results amid a swirl of new developments, which, like puzzle pieces, align to reveal a potent clarity.
Jeff Harmer convincingly gets across Arthur Birling as one who believes his own press as an unblemished upper-echelon person of society. Harmer is superb at infusing his persona with an obstinate stoutness that tries ever so hard to not be brought down to earth by Goole’s incisive questioning. Arthur’s wife, Sybil, who is tremendously depicted with the highest of airs by Christine Kavanagh, is even more entrenched in her self-deception in spite of Goole’s proffering of facts that might be of relevance to her.
In sharp contrast to Arthur and Sybil Birling’s resistance to feelings that may make them feel bad about themselves, though, are their children, Sheila and Eric, who are actualized compellingly by Lianne Harvey and Hamish Riddle, respectively. Reflective of generational schisms not unlike that of today, the siblings have had fewer years to accrue the cynicism that might make it easier for them to fend off any moral dilemmas regarding their place in public life. While Eric copes with young adulthood by drinking far too much, he isn’t one to lie, and neither is Sheila, who finds relief in shedding her aristocratic armor and pondering insights that function as the primary conscience of the play, juxtaposed against Goole’s impassioned and stirring argumentation. It should be noted that Sheila’s fiancé, Gerald, portrayed with great emotional versatility by Andrew Macklin, temporarily experiences an important transformative crisis, but it unfortunately washes away when it suddenly becomes all too convenient to forget.
It goes without saying that there aren’t many plays that stand the test of time, keeping us on the edge of our seats with bated breath as one mystery is solved, only to beget another, before the cumulative lesson is unfurled for all of us to unmistakably see. J.B. Priestley’s writing in “An Inspector Calls” is as cogent as ever, and Stephen Daldry’s direction seamlessly paces the investigative proceedings, taking enough time for us to observe how its characters change or refuse to change when faced with their own introspection. In the end, we’re left with the essential thought that we share this world together and that we have much to gain by staying grounded — regardless of how high our income bracket — and lending a helping hand whenever we can.