October 22, 2019

A 20th-Century ‘Inspector’ That Fits in 2019

A 20th-century morality play never felt more relevant as the UK’s National Theatre production of “An Inspector Calls” landed at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Set in 1912, it tells the story of the fictional upper-class Birling family in middle England who are all intricately and unwittingly connected with the suicide of a local girl. J.B. Priestly’s classic thriller takes place in three acts over one evening and leaves the audience with more questions than answers.

The touring production was directed by BAFTA- and Oscar-winner Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours,” “The Crown”) and opens with an opulent Victorian house set in a sparse wasteland, watched by local urchins. There is an “Alice-in-Wonderland” feeling as the Birling family hunch to step out through the undersized door, and we soon discover that their value system is out of sync with the mores of society.

One by one, every member of the Birling family discovers how their lack of humanity contributed to the girl’s death, and most of them are able to recognize and begin to repent for what they have done.

Although the dramatist did not likely intend it as he wrote the play in 1945, there are strong Jewish themes at the heart of “An Inspector Calls”. There is a slight Talmudic misquote from the Talmud Sanhedrin 4:5 but it illustrates the point: “Whoever destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.” They all see how they missed opportunities to save a life, and the twist is that we then see their family life is fall apart.

The grey skies in the background of the set give a sense of foreboding, both of the family’s moral collapse and the First World War, which is about to occur, tearing apart the essence of British society and stability.

As the world crumbles, the Birling children epitomize Maimonides’ approach to teshuva (repentance or return), taking responsibility for their actions, recognizing what they have done and immediately implementing a change of behavior, while their parents immediately choose denial and avoid responsibility as soon as they get the opportunity.

The play was originally produced in 1945 with performances in Moscow and Leningrad since a venue was not available in London. The first UK performance took place the following year with the as-yet unknighted Sir Ralph Richardson as Inspector Goole and Sir Alec Guinness as Eric Birling, many years before they became theatrical knights of the realm and Guinness was immortalized as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Questions about moral responsibility must have been pertinent in the mid-’40s context of World War II, which had left Europe in a state of destruction, even though the Holocaust was virtually unknown at the time. Today the play’s questions can lead us to thoughts about social responsibility, whether it comes to the environment, societal imbalance or our global community.

“We aren’t the same people who sat down for the dinner at the start of the evening” says Sheila Birling, played by the exquisite Lianne Harvey, and she could be speaking directly to us, who are not the same audience who sat down for the play at the start of the evening.

Liam Brennan gives a powerful performance as Inspector Goole, and Daldry’s direction presented the play in a memorable light since Goole often looks straight at the audience while the people he interrogates are speaking behind him. This theatrical convention emphasizes the contemporary aspect of the play, as if Goole we talking to us, the onlookers, urging us to look deep within ourselves–  as if our actions are reflected in the world of the play.

At one point, Inspector Goole breaks the fourth wall and begins preaching to the audience, as if it was a synagogue or church and we are the congregation. “There are millions of Eva Smiths,” he says, referring to the dead girl “You turned her away when she needs help”. Sure, this convention is heavy-handed, lacks any sense of subtlety and whacksus on the head with a clear message, but why not? I loved it.

Theatre is not meant just to amuse, entertain and distract us. As Aristotle taught, it is “the imitation of an action” that can show us tragedy on stage rather than tragedy in real life, so that we can change how we behave and enhance society.

Priestly ends the story with two plot twists that continue to surprise and delight me, even though my first exposure to “An Inspector Calls” was at age 15 when it was a required study as part of the secondary school syllabus in England. Daldry’s production presents it in a brand new light, and even though the play is nearly 65 years old, it feels like it was written yesterday.