Review: Dazzling conflict of labour versus capital
Theatre: An Inspector Calls, Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
Theatre and film director Stephen Daldry's dazzling production of this old warhorse of a play is a must-see. That is, if you haven't already seen it, as this is the 20th revival of the UK's National Theatre production, originally staged in 1992.
Ian MacNeil's set is fantastic, a brilliant concept of a surreal tiny house on stilts, simultaneously replicating and defying the lugubrious drawing room indicated by the text. Immediately an Alice in Wonderland quality of surrealism is established. The set dismantles and reassembles itself during the show, as do the characters.
The twisty plot is gripping. A merry dinner party is in full swing as boorish industrialist Arthur Birling celebrates the engagement of his daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, well-born businessman and catch. As the men repair to the balcony to smoke, an inspector calls to ask everyone a few questions about the suspicious death by suicide of a penniless young woman. The inspector is full of righteousness, like an avenging angel, determined to make the wealthy capitalist family face up to its responsibilities. It is never entirely clear whether he is real or not.
A self-consciously theatrical production, there are plenty of direct challenges to the audience both by actors and lighting, and a false stop of the action due to injury. A wonderfully over-the-top orchestral score by Stephen Warbeck, coupled with frequent use of a plush red curtain and eventually, fireworks, remind us we are in the land of melodrama. But the tricks of melodrama are respected and enhanced, rather than scorned.
What the play lacks in subtlety, the production makes up for in sheer intelligence. Set in 1912, first staged in the 1940s, both time frames are represented in the action: the interior of the house is wealthy Edwardian, outside is a grim post-war Britain. The overall production, originating in the 1990s, has a Thatcher-antagonist feel. Early 20th-century socialist thinkers George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells are name-checked, as the essential dramatic tussle here is between labour and capital; a conflict that has always provided British theatre with plenty of meat.