The Inspector Calls, playing through October at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is an ingeniously plotted classic mystery play, full of well-timed twists and turns, a sure bet for an evening's entertainment. (I rant about the strong ideological content of this play in a separate article. ) The Shaw Festival's presentation is more than competent, but we left disappointed.
It is a pleasure, year after year, to see Benedict Campbell at the Shaw Festival. What an outstanding, versatile actor! Six years ago, he was brilliant as Lear's loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, at the Stratford Festival (playing with Christopher Plummer's as Lear). Since then, happily, he has been at the Shaw, where, two years ago, I was genuinely moved at his and Kelli Fox's touching portrayal of the the complex relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Last year, we were astonished to see him singing and dancing in Mack and Mabel, in which, energetically and single-handedly, he set the tone for the Shaw's fabulous production.
This year, Campbell is the Inspector in J. B. Priestley's thriller, and he has just the solid heft and authoritative presence that the role requires. He is, in fact, so convincing as an English police detective that many in our audience seemed to have difficulty accepting the possibility that he might be something else altogether. As to that, Priestley gives the audience plenty of clues, beginning with the Inspector's name, “Goole. " Even so, I think many left the Festival Theater genuinely baffled as to just what had actually befallen the Birling family.
The set for An Inspector Calls features a large platform that rotates imperceptibly by 180 degrees during the course of the play, moving the actors and the props with it. (A friend told us that, in a late rehearsal, this platform had collapsed under the weight of the actors and had to be reinforced. ) Its purpose seems to be to instruct the audience that, as new revelations about the Birlings made the characters to see their lives differently, so we the audience must see them from different perspectives as well. (As noted in my earlier post, Priestley's objective in this play is as much to indoctrinate as it is to entertain. )
And, indeed, shocking revelations about the encounters between the unfortunate Eva Smith and various members of the Birling family kept coming, keeping the audience buzzing at intermission about what they thought would be the next twist in the plot.
All said and done, however, the “thrill" was missing from this thriller. The revelatory moment in the last act when chills should have run up and down our spines came and went without chills. We never made any sense of a mysterious light that flitted randomly along the edges of the set. A female figure (who had no lines) appeared hazily on stage between scene changes for no apparent reason. As Arthur and Sybil Birling, two of our very favorite actors, Peter Hutt and Mary Haney, were not permitted to demonstrate their dramatic range and left us flat.
The Shaw Festival's artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, now overseeing her sixth season, seems to be following the practice of her predecessor, Christopher Newton, in allocating at least one slot in a season's playbill to something in the mystery/thriller genre, plays like Laura, Sorry Wrong Number, and Agatha Christie adaptations. Here I am reminded that our very worst experience at the Shaw Festival involved a play from this slot, 2006's disastrous The Invisible Man. The sets and the costumes were gorgeous, the special effects superb, and the acting unobjectionable. But what mediocre material the cast had to work with! That “suspense" play, in which invisible parts of Griffin's body were revealed during the opening scene, was about as suspenseful as a slasher movie in which teenagers start getting axed in the first five minutes. Nothing built up to anything, and the Invisible Man himself was a whining johnny-one-note. We never got to know any characters well enough to care about them, and the playwright failed to introduce two important characters, Dr. Kemp and his wife, until the play was mostly over. This year's An Inspector Calls is more like it.