An Inspector Calls

On Thursday 16th October 2015 I went to the Regent Theatre in Hanley to watch a touring production of J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls. Alas by the end of it I was somewhat confused, a bit angry and didn’t really care very much about the crux of the story. There seemed to be so much socio/political subtext going on through the stage production, that (for me) the heart and essence of the text was lost!

I have never read J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls nor can I recall seeing the 1954 Alastair Sim film either. But I did see a stage production ten years ago and although the details are gone, I still remember the “wow what an ending to the story” feeling. Presumably the modern style of interpretation was there in my first viewing, but at the time I knew nothing at all about the context of An Inspector Calls. Armed with new knowledge and the memory of a superb traditional BBC TV adaptation from a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing the play with a fresh perspective. Sadly from the start all I could do was see “ticking boxes” to fulfil several bits of criteria deemed essential for the underlying sub-text.

It began with WWII air-raid sirens and a little boy listening to a radio, so I thought that the setting was going to be in the 1940s. When the curtain finally lifted and the house interior/occupants dress was revealed, it was obviously 1912 the year the play was set in. As the drama progressed and the WWII motifs remained I was utterly baffled, especially as the sirens, radio music and sounds of bombing at times drowned out the actors voices, as they did not use any means of amplification. Particularly bad was the dialogue at the beginning when the Birling party were inside their enclosed “Wendy house mansion on stilts”. I immediately thought they would have to open up the set for anyone to be able to hear properly. In my usual “cheap seat” at the back of the stalls, at times I’ve had to concentrate hard to follow a story, as the Regent does not have the best of acoustics. But with the actors having no amplification and the type of stage setting involved I must have lost about 20% of the dialogue.

So with different eras seemingly being juxtaposed together I couldn’t help but think “that shouldn’t be there” far too many times. The Birling’s interior telephone became an outdoor telephone box (I don’t think available in 1912), the dining room interrogation found itself on the hard urban streets of a bombed out city, the WWII radio had no place in a 1912 parlour. The manner of Inspector Goole reminded me of Jack Regan in “The Sweeney”, especially when he rolled up his shirt sleeves and threw his jacket into the gutter and shouted most of the time. Eric Birling the errant son running on with his shirt-tails hanging out and a bit wild eyed made me think of someone coming out of a night-club, not a man having had too much to drink at a home dinner party. And the violence shown between son/mother and father/son reminded me of episodes of “Dallas”! Obviously my mind wandered from the plot quite often, partly as a way of trying to comprehend what I was seeing but mainly because I felt totally disengaged from the story. When I get into a play I almost become part of it and really care deeply about the characters. But this time I just felt remote from the whole thing, perhaps because this modern adaptation was trying too hard to be all things to all people!

Much discussion took place with my husband Rob afterwards in the pub and the “era-mix” caused great confusion. From Google we discovered that Priestley wrote the play in 1945 but the story was set in April 1912, so it was a kind of vague though unsatisfactory explanation why both decades prevailed on stage. From the program there was a hinted suggestion that the rejection of Churchill in the polls after WWII could have been reflected in Priestley’s play. But I think that’s reading too much into that, but I could see that the class barriers that began to be questioned during the First World War were even more battered (though not dead) by the end of the Second World War.

I was far more interested to discover the play was set in APRIL of 1912 the same month as the Titanic disaster. The irony of that was not lost on me at all, the rich inhabiting the top decks having a better chance of survival than the poor on lower decks. And the gentry mantra of “women and children” must be on a life raft first, does not equate with pregnant Eva Smith/Daisy Renton being cast aside and effectively killed by the same upper class because no one threw her a life belt. It is also the era of the suffragette movement and Eva/Daisy initially fell on hard times through asking for a pay rise and going on strike. Her hard difficult struggle to make ends meet is a direct reflection of the harsh treatment by the authorities of women fighting for more equality. So when patriarch Arthur Birling complains vociferously at the harsh/less reverential questioning directed by the Inspector toward the Birling women, the irony and hypocrisy of the situation is all too evident.

The “Wendy house mansion on stilts” perfectly emphasised both the shaky ground the upper-class society was built upon in 1912 and visually separated the comfortable elite from the desperate majority. Inspector Goole’s line of questioning unravelled the fabric that kept the Birling facade intact and the First World War helped shake the foundations as well. When an onstage explosion literally brought the house down, I guess it was a metaphorical representation of an equalling in society. Both the mother and son at one point were lying in the gutter apparently broken by their deeds. Yet when it looks like no suicide has been made by Eva/Daisy, the audience saw Mrs Sybil Birling rising slowly then becoming more assured in her manner. The old-world order had not been upset after all, which was a call for celebration. Only the young Birlings’ Eric and Sheila seemed traumatised by the whole affair and felt any kind of remorse for their actions. They realised whether Eva/Daisy had committed suicide or not, all of them at the dinner party were culpable for their actions in bringing about her predicament. The ending of course finds Arthur Birling being informed that a death has now occurred and the police will be arriving to question them. Everything they had been told was a prediction of what would happen that night.

I discerned from my program a notion that only a modern innovative rendition of An Inspector Calls could bring the themes from the story into the present day. A traditional portrayal of the play could only make the Birling family seem like a relic from a bygone era, something from the history books. I disagree completely with this assumption having seen the recent BBC TV adaptation, which was excellent. It took place in a resplendent Georgian dining room with characters acting perfectly in dress, manner and behaviour of the times. The Inspector Goole of this version was quietly forceful with a beautifully measured manner and a pall of sadness about him. To me he was utterly believable, especially as he made me think of the narrator in the film The Book Thief, who was the voice of death like Goole himself. Being set properly in the context of 1912 magnifies the heart and soul of the play; it does not detract from it. The Titanic disaster, Suffragette movement, World War One and the ideals/wrongs of that time nourish and nurture the story. For me the traditional setting reinforced the themes from the play and I had tears in my eyes at the end of the TV drama. Alas I was a bit angry and rather cross having watched the stage production of An Inspector Calls. I’m sorry to say the themes that transcend the generations doesn’t work as a smorgasbord stage setting.

Theatre programme. Image credit abmj
Theatre programme. Image credit abmj

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler: Noel Coward Theatre

Nicole Kidman put in a star performance as Rosalind Franklin the scientist who developed the world famous x-ray diffraction photograph, the pivotal piece of information that helped reveal the structure of DNA. Franklin was undoubtedly a pioneer in her field but never received the accolade of having her name alongside Crick, Watson and Wilkins, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962. In fact Rosalind didn’t even live to see the sixties, having passed away in 1958 from cancer which she contracted possibly as a result of her x-ray diffraction work.

As I took my seat to watch a performance on the evening of Saturday 26th September I didn’t quite know what to expect, although I knew the basics of the story and the photograph itself very well. Nicole Kidman was utterly convincing as the brilliant, driven, fastidious and downright prickly Dr Rosalind Franklin, giving the character the necessary gravitas and emotional brittleness to drive the story which begins in France. Franklin is saying au revoir to her French colleagues, as she is about to take up a prestigious post with Dr Maurice Wilkins at Kings College London working on DNA.

On arrival at the subterranean laboratory of Kings College the conflict between Wilkins and Franklin begins virtually immediately. Wilkins bumbling English ways where his efforts to be nice are totally shredded by the abrasive Franklin, eventually results in them not being on speaking terms. Franklin as a Jewish woman may have felt it necessary to fight against everything to be taken even remotely seriously, especially working in the male dominated Christian created King’s College. After all she was living in post-war 1950s England where women stayed at home, had children and remained subservient to their husbands. So Franklin in the play works longer hours than her colleagues, has literally no life other than her work, and has an even stiffer upper lip than her English male counterparts. Unsurprisingly she is not the easiest person to get along with, and any genuine concern shown for her well-being is brushed aside. The scene where her PhD student is vainly trying to encourage care whilst maintaining the x-ray diffraction equipment is particularly poignant and my alarm here was palpable. For all Rosalind’s care and cautiousness at interpreting results, the play suggests impatience at delays, a consequence which could result in potentially deadly mistakes being made.

Crick and Watson the other main protagonists of the story are in a way the twin equivalent of Wilkins and Franklin. Crick doesn’t quite have the awkward bumbling manner of Wilkins but he heads his group at Cambridge as Wilkins does at Kings. Crick struck me as a facilitator who let or made things happen, whilst his post-doc student Watson seemed the driving force behind the groups work. James Watson was the same and yet opposite to Rosalind Franklin. Both scientists were brilliant at their work, driven by an insatiable inner force, with a tunnel-vision approach in trying to get their goal. They differed in that Franklin appeared to be cautious, had scant interest in other peoples “misguided theory” publications and worked by choice, virtually alone and shared none of her results. Watson seemed almost reckless at times, made it his mission to know what anyone was doing in the DNA field, and hoovered up bits of information whenever he could, to use at a later date. Watson seemed to happily bounce ideas off his supervisor Crick, who in turn went along with theories in more than one attempt to model the DNA structure.

The actor playing Watson showed remarkable guile and cunning whilst appearing to chat amiably about work in Maurice Wilkins office. In turn Wilkins naivety came through when he innocently showed Watson the best x-ray photograph to date. The beginnings of unravelling the DNA structure clearly took place at that moment. During the play an illuminated square on the stage floor was used to refer to the DNA structural model, the audience just had to use their imagination. But I witnessed and photographed the Guinness World Record certified DNA model construction by Keele University, so it was easy for me.

DNA Day from March 2002. Image credit abmj
              DNA Day from March 2002. Image credit abmj

Anna Ziegler’s writing throughout was exceptional with a touch of whimsy sprinkled occasionally in the dialogue, a case of “what might have been” scenarios. At these points Nicole Kidman was able to give her character more light and shade creating a more rounded and likeable persona. A scene on yearning is beautifully almost poetically phrased, where Rosalind for a moment, yields to an inner set of emotions that are perpetually kept in check. You could see Kidman’s face illuminate and the character for a split second bloom, before withering again. The effect is devastating particularly as the scene is used as a vehicle to introduce Franklin’s cancer diagnosis. At the end of the play there is juxtaposition between a character dying in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and hope staying alive. Rosalind and Maurice Wilkins are discussing a Laurence Olivier film and neither of them can remember the actress who played alongside him. Prophetically Franklin says “She just never put herself forward” which was also Rosalind’s epitaph. I was biting my lip at that point trying very hard not to cry, and a visibly moved Nicole Kidman could be seen brushing away tears as she accepted the audience’s applause.

I got the impression that Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed to it quite quickly, whilst still part of Maurice Wilkins group in the early fifties. However this is where a little artistic licence has been used to keep the integrity of the play within the realms of Kings College, as the story gets a little complicated otherwise. Rosalind Franklin left Kings College and relocated to Birkbeck in March 1953 where she worked on the structure of viruses and RNA. The stipulation of her move prevented Franklin from continuing work in the DNA structure field (either by contract design or personal choice). It was whilst at Birkbeck in the autumn of 1956 that Rosalind discovered she had ovarian cancer, and she passed away on April 16th 1958 aged just 37.

Rosalind Franklin appears to have been the ultimate contradiction, both a woman ahead of her time but a product of her time. She refused to play the politics game in the lab viewing herself as an equal to Wilkins, not an assistant of his within the group. Whilst most women remained in the home, she worked in a male dominated field and was as good if not better than her counterparts, a true pioneer for working women of the future. Yet having been raised in an era where women were seen and not heard, Rosalind never ever put herself forward. Her almost pathological need to be absolutely sure about something before considering putting ideas into the public domain, and her reluctance to share results undoubtedly stems from her upbringing. That inability to take the leap of faith that science sometimes demands was sadly Franklin’s Achilles heel.

This play provides a unique glimpse into a pivotal moment in scientific history, as told through the story of Rosalind Franklin, a woman who has never received the accolades she truly deserved.

Photograph 51 limited season until 21st November 2015.

Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 program. Image credit abmj
Nicole Kidman in Photograph51 program. Image credit abmj