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Photo: Johan Persson

Tennessee Williams’s rarely revived 1957 drama Orpheus Descending has had a chequered career. Originally titled Battle of Angels, it was his first produced play in 1940. It’s an uneven, slightly overheated piece of Southern Gothic full of poetic flights of fancy and overt symbolism, but its depiction of a tragic conflict between free-spirited passion and bigoted conformism still hits home.

It is set in a dry goods store of a small town in the Deep South run by the middle-aged Lady, whose dying husband unbeknownst to her was involved in the burning to death of her Italian father. After she takes on young drifter Val as a clerk and then lover, tensions rise dramatically in a claustrophobic community where no secrets are safe from prying eyes and gossip-mongering.

Photo: Johan Persson

There’s a rich brew of eccentric, colourful characters with an atmosphere of sexual repression, religious obsession, racial prejudice and latent violence, captured well in Tamara Harvey’s lyrical production of heightened realism. Some stage directions are spoken like a Greek chorus by Valentine Hanson, who also plays a black beggar on the fringes of a society where the Ku Klux Klan and chain gangs still operate.

There is real chemistry between the lovers hoping for a new, more fulfilling life. Hattie Morahan is excellent as the tough-talking but emotionally wounded Lady who falls for Seth Numrich’s snakeskin-jacketed, guitar-carrying Val, who is looking to go straight and settle down after years of wild living on the run. But in this red-neck town the odds are stacked against the “fugitive kind”.

Photo: Johan Persson

Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU. Tickets £37.50–£47.50, until 6 July 2019.

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