Heidelberg Theatre Company bring one of J.B. Priestley’s greatest works, An Inspector Calls, to the stage.
First performed in 1945 and set in 1912, An Inspector Calls, reveals what lies beneath the veneer of a wealthy English family when challenged with the death of a woman below their station. Priestley held strong personal views on social injustice and many view this work as, among other things, a strong manifesto espousing the virtues of socialism over the vices of capitalism.
Some may think these to be hard messages for the audience looking to have a good night out at the theatre to digest but Director John Jenkins is not one of these and believes the play to hold a sense of believability and familiarity that will be the hook for the audience. “Everyone in the audience will be able to relate to one of the characters in some way, whether it's a family member or someone they know, they will see in the characters a familiar person,” explains Jenkins. “ They should expect a range of emotions, but no clear conclusion. I will not force my opinion of events upon them. They will need to make up their own mind about what they have seen. The events, the message, the moral dilemmas and arrogance of the human race has not changed over time. I wish it had, but until such time as it does, this play will continue to draw audiences.”
These views are also shared by actor Chris Gaffney who is delighted to be playing mysterious Inspector Goole, the moral voice of justice who forces the wealthy Birling family to understand that all actions have consequences. “I remember this as a great story and wanted to play the inspector,” says Gaffney. “ I was a bit intimidated by some of earlier great portrayals including Ralph Richardson, what a voice ,and of course Alister Sim I was also amazed how modern it all sounded in its attitudes. I feared that its attitude to women given the age of the play would have been very sexist and dated, but this is not so . Is it that that makes it a modern classic.? I also heartily endorsed the politics of the play. Our timing is good as well, given that the reality of classes has become more obvious in the last few years, just look at the GFC and the 99% movement.”
Jenkins will be remembered for directing the psychological thriller, the Business Of Murder, for Heidelberg last year. Another work which examines the concept of causal link between seemingly disparate individuals. Jenkins explains the magnitude of this play’s attraction as having grabbed him from page one and did not let me go.” It is a show that I have never seen done, but read about 6 or 7 years ago. Once I finished the last page, I knew that I had to do this show. Initially though, I did not think to direct it, but to be in it myself. As I am now concentrating on more directing for theatre than acting, I knew that this was a play that I had to put on.”
It would seem that actor Roderick Chappel, playing the domineering and morally corrupt head of the Birling household, Arthur Birling, would agree: “I was motivated to audition for An Inspector Calls because it is a genuine serious drama, with the five strongly-drawn characters in the Birling family, and the contrasting, ultimately mysterious, figure of the Inspector. I have done a lot of comedy and other lighter material, and An Inspector Calls is satisfyingly different. Although we meet the Birling family exactly one hundred years ago, some of the themes – social inequality and injustice, and the capacity that privileged people often have for self deception – are timeless. My character, Arthur Birling, is a hard-hearted factory owner, with deep flaws of character. However, he is also very human, and I have grown to like him – although the audience may not share my viewpoint! Learning this major part has been challenging, in part because the script is so well written – it therefore seems particularly important to present the dialogue accurately and with appropriate feeling, and thus to do the playwright’s work justice.”
Although almost 70 years old, An Inspector Calls drew many actors to the Heidelberg auditions. Jenkins was inundated with hopefuls and was lucky enough to have the luxury of choosing the most talented as well as the most physically suitable – a luxury indeed in community theatre! However, Jenkins does have specific audition pre-requisites. “The biggest selling point of an audition is the actor’s ability to take direction. I never have actors recite a monologue as many directors do, due to the fact that they can rehearse that for months and have it nailed and deliver it perfectly, but given a different monologue or set of lines to deliver in a manner which I would like them delivered, they fall down. I like an actor that can bring a little of the character they are auditioning for, to the audition. This shows that they have studied the role to some point and have a feel for it. When asked to deliver it in another emotion or slightly different way they use what they have already and expand upon it.”
Two happily successful auditionees were Lyall Mabin, playing the affianced to Sheila Birling as well as holding a dark secret, and Linda Morgan, playing the morally and socially superior Sybil Birling matriarch of the Birling family.
“For me, Gerald Croft has a fascinating development through the narrative,” says Mabin of his character. “He is established as a self assured, well educated man-about-town. Though, as the plot thickens, we witness his descent. The admission of his own infidelity and the realisation of his past lover’s untimely death are the heightened reality in which he must come to terms with his choices. This is, of course, until he discovers the ‘truth’ about the Inspector. Such a character arc is a gift to any actor, and the opportunity to portray Gerald with honesty and sincerity is a challenge I was lucky enough to land.”
Similarly enamoured is Morgan: “I was thrilled to have landed the role of Sybil Birling in this play. I attended the UK production of An Inspector Calls in 2006 in Sydney, and while I was watching it, I thought wouldn't it be great to be in a classic play such as this one day. So when I saw the auditions notice, I was keen to try out for the role of the mother. John's direction has made rehearsing easy and pleasant, as he is a very clear communicator and has a brilliant memory. I have enjoyed being part of this professionally-minded cast, and trust I do the role justice.”
Jenkins and his cast and support crew are working hard to bring life to this still very topical play. “With any play, you hope the audience takes a sense of satisfaction away with them,” states Jenkins. “I hope that we have managed in some small way to pull them into our world for just a couple of hours. With this play in particular, I want them to take away questions. I would like to have them discussing the play in the car on the way home and what conclusions each came up with. This show does not have that definite conclusion and it is left to the audience themselves to decide the meaning behind it all. Not to say that it will confuse the hell out of everyone, but most will have a different idea of what, who and how.”
An Inspector Calls plays at Heidelberg Theatre Company May 3 – May 19