Sound helps sets the stage – rain, thunder, dissonant trumpets, a wayward cello – all introduce the play and, throughout, signal shifts in a familial and social dynamic, helping to underscore the more dramatic moments in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of An Inspector Calls. The show, on tour from The National Theatre of Great Britain, is playing at the Theatre’s newest venue, The Yard, after garnering Olivier, Tony, and other awards in London’s West End.
The team assembled to create this production of JB Priestley’s 1946 play, set in a fictitious 1912 industrial town in England, is first rate in every way. Director Stephen Daldry’s many credits include Netflix’s The Crown and the award-winning Billy Elliot. Composer Stephen Warbeck’s credits include an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love and countless other scores for film and stage. Sound Designer Sebastian Frost won a 2008 Tony for Sunday in the Park with George.
The play is set on the street and in the dining room of the house of the upper-class (though not landed gentry) Birling family and centers on an Inspector’s visit one dark and fateful night. The Inspector’s queries and monologues reveal much about the social classes at work in Britain, illuminating the play’s nakedly socialistic themes. The drama of the play lies in the inspector’s story of a dead young woman and the family’s potential involvement, with twists in the story line and unexpected turns sustaining a line of suspense that holds for the duration of the play.
Structural and production-related elements of the play come together to add to the emotional drama. There is no intermission, so the audience is immersed in the family drama just as the family is, with no escape from the tension. The at-once sophisticated yet stark set highlights the themes of the work incredibly well – the stage design, lighting, and costuming are artistic achievements in their own rite.
And the sound design is tough to miss. While much of the play is quiet, full of dialogue as a lens for the part of the work that is a morality play, when monumental shifts and turns arise, they are highlighted with a loud and dissonant score. The sound is so loud, in fact, that several in our vicinity covered their ears. The effects are jarring by design as they attempt to literally shake the theatregoers – who, of course, can afford tickets to a production like this – into emotional resonance with the play’s socialistic themes.
Though the play’s narrative arc is accomplished through mystery, there is little room for mystery in the ethical underpinnings of playwright JB Priestley. A baldly socialistic worldview is laid out through the work, with the alternative, vulture capitalism, presented as caricature. It’s important to consider the work in its original time – written as World War Two was ending, the play is set in rapidly industrializing England just prior to World War One. But the resurrection of this work in 2019, both in England and now in Chicago, when our global economy continues to breed unconscionable income inequality, is not a coincidence. The play demonstrates clearly the relevance of intransigent, decades-old social ills, retaining a relevance that makes great works of drama great.
The cast of the touring production is top-notch – all are equally matched. The younger adults play especially well – Lianne Harvey as Sheila Birling and Hamish Riddle as her brother Eric. The arc of the play requires them to go on the longest emotional journey of the cast, and they rise to the challenge.
Perhaps it sounds like the work is, at heart, a facile morality play. But the artistic design, production values including sound and set, a talented cast, and clever turns of the plot do prevent a simplistic view of morality from prevailing in the end. As with all great theatre, in the final analysis things are just not as easy as they seem. This show has been highly anticipated, and the run basically sold out, but An Inspector Calls does have one more week at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
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