Roots - London (WE) 2013
Sep 24, 2013
Places & Faces Magazine
At a time when the West End is saturated with compilation musicals and television-pace plays, it isn't hard to see why Arnold Wesker has fallen out of fashion in this country. While Chips with Everything, The Kitchen and many of his more recent plays have been continuously produced across Europe, Wesker, like Howard Barker, has been one of those writers remembered here but performed there; one for ageing theatricals and drama students, not for contemporary audiences.
Time to think again. The Donmar Warehouse's new production of Wesker's 1959 play Roots makes abundantly clear that the absence of his plays from our major stages has been our loss. Subtle, beautifully acted, atmospheric and ultimately thrilling, Roots feels hypnotically period and yet ravishingly contemporary. When the central character unleashes a lifetime of frustration in the final act, she could be talking about now.
Beatie Bryant returns to her Norfolk family home from what has clearly been an eye-opening experience in London. There she met Ronnie (a central but absent figure in the play) who is, depending on your perspective, a socialist, an idealist or a romantic. Beatie finds him and his view of the world inspiring and is excited to bring him to dinner with her family. The world to which she hopes to bring him could not be more different.
Beatie's father turns off the kitchen light for fear of wasting electricity; her mother continuously occupies herself with cooking and chores with seemingly no interest in the world beyond listening to classical music. They bath in a tin bath brought in to the kitchen and concealed by sheets. They know what time it is by the bus passing outside. Everybody is settled - in both the best and the worst sense; they are contented with their place in the world but also have no ambition to improve it. As Beatie's opportunity to escape this claustrophobic world becomes extinguished, she finally, almost accidentally, finds her own voice - delivering a powerful eulogy for what they could have been and an attack on what they/she/we have become.
"The whole stinkin' commercial world insults us and we don't care a damn. Well Ronnie's right - it's our own bloody fault. We want the third-rate - we got it!"
For all the intellectual and emotional fireworks let off in the final fifteen minutes of the play, Roots is a slow burn. It is a wholly different species of theatre event from, say, the brilliant Chimerica that has recently closed in London, or indeed from many of the other plays that have recently found success. Minutes go by in the opening acts in which nobody speaks. We watch them fill the bath rub or prepare food. But, much like a fly on the wall, we get to know them by observing them going about their lives.
James Macdonald's production, helped by Hildegard Bechtler's spare design and, in particular, Guy Hoare's atmospheric lighting, eschews the obvious uber-naturalistic approach. Each scene begins with a back wall projection of the locale which then fades slowly into blackness. The first scene, in particular, gives a sense of these characters suspended in the middle of nowhere - in the real world but, more so, in their own.
Appropriately for a play in which so much is sub-textual, Macdonald's biggest achievement here is his least visible: the performances he gets from his cast.
Jessica Raine as Beatie may be best known for Call the Midwife but has proved herself many times as a terrific stage actress at the National and elsewhere and here shows herself as a major stage performer.
Michael Jibson, best known for his terrific performances in numerous musicals, is funny, truthful and affecting as Jimmy. And Linda Bassett dazzles as the mother, with the kind of reality one normally expects only to see in Mike Leigh films. Norfolk-born Carl Prekopp is also strong amongst the terrific supporting cast.
What strikes one most forcefully, though, is that a play so manifestly a period piece can resonate so powerfully with contemporary concerns.
Isolationism, whether personal or political, did not die with the arrival of the Beatles and civil rights in the years following Roots' Royal Court premiere. It has the great power to speak for us today as much as to remind us of yesterday.
Anyone looking for a big night out would be unlikely to choose a play like this for a trip to London. But somebody in the mood for a coruscating analysis of the social mores of the past and cultural concerns of the present, and to see these being presented up close, couldn't do much better than to see this great masterpiece of post war drama.