J.B. Priestley’s 1945 chestnut, a staple of the modern theatrical canon, is not what anyone would call subtle. Set on the cusp of World War I, it focuses on the well-to-do Birlings, led by self-satisfied industrialist and politician Arthur, a man singularly devoted to protecting “the interests of capital” and pooh-poohing the burgeoning socialist ideal of “community and all that nonsense.” Into their swank ranks comes mysterious, hard-nosed Inspector Goole to inform them that a young woman’s just committed suicide and left a diary in which several of them are named. For the bulk of three painstakingly foreseeable acts Goole shows how each family member’s privilege and self-absorption contributed to the dead woman’s despondency and dissolution. Is there a lesson waiting for everyone about “community and all that nonsense”? Could be.
So it’s perplexing that director Stephen Daldry, known for his exquisite restraint on Netflix’s The Crown, applies the nuance of a thermonuclear blast to Priestly’s script. On Ian MacNeil’s gorgeously overdetermined set, everything is metaphor writ large, from the Birling manse, barfed up from the earth and teetering on spindly metal girders, to the puddle of filth that will receive more than one Birling visitation. The actors match the set in bombast and obviousness. This production premiered in 1992, when Daldry was all of 32, so perhaps we can excuse it as a youngish man’s undisciplined squeal. Then again, even at that age he might have realized that audiences can figure a thing or two out for themselves. v