Roots, a play written by Arnold Wesker and directed for the Donmar by James Macdonald.
It’s 1958. Beatie Bryant has been to London and fallen in love with Ronnie, a young socialist. As she anxiously awaits his arrival to meet her family at their Norfolk farm, her head is swimming with new ideas. Ideas of a bolder, freer world which promise to clash with their rural way of life.
ROOTS is the remarkable centrepiece of Wesker’s seminal post-war trilogy. Director James Macdonald directs Jessica Raine as Beatie in this portrait of a young woman finding her voice at a time of unprecedented social change.
I felt rather wobbly about the play at first, and it took me a while before I could settle in, and start liking it… then really liking it… It’s a rather long play, so I could afford taking the time to make up my mind.
One element of the play that I found quite unsettling was the enormous amount of tedious house chores being staged. There was real cooking going on — potatoes were being peeled, green beans were being cut, eggs were being cracked, a cake was being (half) baked. There was a real bath being run, laundry being folded (perfectly timed with the dialogue, by the way… mind-blowingly so, actually). And let’s not forget all the dishes that were being washed, then set on the table, then taken out, then washed again… dizzying…. At one point, Beatie (our heroin) proceeded to tidy up the room (rather thoroughly I might add) while her sister washed the dishes (yep, again). They did that for quite some time and in total silence: a rather brave staging move I thought. It really felt that they were testing the audience. That’s probably when I decided to embrace the pace. It’s through those mundane routines that the complex familial relationships enfolded, and that the characters revealed all their layers… In any case, kudos to the cast — especially Jessica Raine in the title role — for perfectly timing their dense dialogue with all that rather frantic domestic choreography.
The other crucial element of the play that put me off at first was Beatie and her mother (Linda Bassett): Beatie with her manic chirpiness & forced energy + Mrs Bryant with her insufferable high-pitched voice. Bad first impressions. But by the time they were done with all that cleaning, washing, tidying and bickering, I had come to find them fascinating, layered and engaging. And what great performances those two actresses gave us. Linda Bassett’s final let-me-get-it-out-of-my-chest monologue felt particularly cathartic and was my personal highlight of the play.