The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production of JB Priestley’s classic thriller

An Inspector Calls

February 19

March 10, 2019

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

A WorldStage Production from the UK
directed by Stephen Daldry

Calling Again

It seemed to be an unlikely combination from the outset. In the summer of 1992, London theatre was scratching its collective head, wondering why Stephen Daldry, the darling of the fringe, had decided to make his National Theatre debut with a revival of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a venerable set text and an old warhorse, beloved of many a repertory theatre. At the time of the production, Daldry was en route to run the Royal Court, having previously turned the Gate, a postage stamp space above an unpretentious pub in Notting Hill, into a dynamic and fashionable venue. It seemed a perverse choice to make An Inspector Calls the vehicle with which he now sought to make an impression on a wider stage.

With hindsight and with the evidence of such credits as Billy Elliot and The Reader, we now know the caliber of the man who would completely revolutionize the way we regarded Priestley’s classic play. Daldry has such a shrewd sense of theatre, which applies just as much to his own professional life as it does to what he puts onstage. Daldry knew that he had to make this revival of An Inspector Calls an event and he realized this vision to the letter.

The audience assembling in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre on that September evening had little inkling of what they were about the experience. Previous productions had been characterized by the usual meticulous reconstruction of an Edwardian drawing room, heavy with crystal, mahogany and silverware, a loving and comprehensive recreation of 1912, the year in which Priestley’s play is set. Instead, Iain McNeill’s audacious design shattered our preconceptions. The Birling family were confined to what looked like a fairy tale house, which sagged slightly on the stilts that supported it, as if in a surrealist’s dream. A spiral staircase uncoiled its way from the prosperous warmth of the Birling’s drawing room down to the chill cobbles of a bleak urban landscape.

The audience was poleaxed by the boldness of the concept, a concept that did not bury the play in superfluous embroidery but instead released its essence. Directorial accretions can often disguise a lack of belief in the play itself but Daldry’s production was a massive vote of confidence in Priestley’s work. What he had realized—and what audiences nearly 20 years later are still realizing—is that a traditional production of An Inspector Calls, swamped by rich period detail, had the effect of locating the piece too rigidly in the past. It distanced us from the themes of the play and made the Birlings figures from history. They had become waxworks in a museum, relics from the past rather than flesh and blood characters with whose greed, callous hypocrisy, and self-satisfaction we could all identify. But in the world of this production, be it 1912, 1939-1945 or 2015, there’s no escape for us from the Inspector’s implacable judgment. Like the Birlings, we are in the dock.

It was a tour de force. Stephen Daldry had scraped his way through the layers of routine productions and discovered a play that was as fresh and as radical and as angry as it was when Priestley completed it during World War II. Unusually for a play that is so much a part of this country’s dramatic DNA, it was first performed in Moscow in 1945. Priestley asserted that no suitable theatre could be found at the time in Britain. 2015 saw the 70th anniversary of that original production.

The first UK production was mounted the following year when Ralph Richardson, Priestley’s friend and frequent collaborator, led a cast including Margaret Leighton and Alec Guinness into the New aka the Noël Coward Theatre. There followed—eventually—a cinematic treatment with Alastair Sim as the Inspector in 1954.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the play’s instant appeal was the way in which its themes reflected the concerns of the electorate who had just decisively rejected Churchill the war leader in favor of Clement Attlee and his reforming Labour administration. Perhaps the post-war mood had given Attlee a mandate for social justice. The country was in one of its idealistic moods, which found powerful expression in Priestley and in An Inspector Calls.

The play might well have suffered during the long years of Tory governments from 1951-1964, when Britain was turning into a consumer society and when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was reminding voters that they’d never had it so good. In addition, it’s possible that An Inspector Calls came to be regarded as one of Priestley’s time plays rather than anything politically engaged and fueled by a powerful anger at this country’s social inequality and injustice. Perhaps it was also treated as something of a whodunit since the Inspector, like a Christie sleuth, prowls the Birlings’ drawing room, stripping the family of its self-delusions and revealing its culpability in the destruction of a human life.

The impact of Daldry’s revelatory staging has been so immense that traditional stagings of the play seem to have largely died out. In the 1992 production, Kenneth Cranham played the Inspector while Richard Pasco and Barbara Leigh-Hunt, husband and wife in private life, played the Birlings. Over the years, such leading actors as Barry Foster, Judy Parfitt, Siân Phillips and Nicholas Woodeson have taken on the older parts, while such talents as Paul Bettany and Tom Goodman-Hill were both featured in An Inspector Calls before they became more widely known. En route for Broadway, the National’s production moved into the West End to the Aldwych and then to the Garrick. In 2009, Daldry revisited the production which opened at the Novello before flitting to Wyndham’s.

In its way, this landmark production has developed into something of a phenomenon. It has many years to go before it equals the longevity of The Mousetrap, of course, but who’s to say it won’t show similar powers of endurance.

Al Senter

© John Good

Originally printed in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s program for An Inspector Calls.

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