Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The inspector makes a timely return

If you happen to be in London between now and 14 November make sure you see An Inspector Calls. J. B Priestley's 1944 play is an old-fashioned pot-boiler that sketches the self-destruction of a well-to-do British family when confronted with the implications of its disregard for other people. This production was originally mounted by the Royal National Theatre in 1992 and has itself become a classic. After its National season it moved to the West End, where it played for over a year. It has now been revived and is on at the Novello Theatre in the West End.

The production is the work of Stephen Daldry, whose other credits include Oscar-nominated films such as The Reader, The Hours and Billy Elliott. The set design brings out the claustrophobic intensity of an arrogant family turning in on itself against the background of age-old generational conflicts. The themes of hypocrisy, social and economic class structures and the inability to deal with unpleasant truths are as contemporary as ever.

The economics of J. M. Keynes are back in vogue and the political thinking and writing of Priestley - a contemporary of Keynes - are also deserve an airing. The play was written as the beginnings of the great postwar settlement - led in Britain by the Labour government of Clement Attlee - were emerging from the fog of battle. This was a time of renewal and of a feeling that "things would never be the same again." Only a few months ago our political leaders were promising that the patently corrupt world of turbo-capitalism would also be banished forever. The backsliding on those commitments has already begun. Perhaps Priestley's play in this wonderful production can help ensure that the will for change remains alive. The inspector's return is timely indeed.

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