Roots by Arnold Wesker @ Donmar Warehouse, London, on Fri 1 November 2013
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 at first. It took me a while before I could settle in. Then, I got to liking it… then really liking it… It’s a rather long play, so I could actually afford taking the time to get into it.
One reason to feel rather unsettled at first 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-boggling, actually). And let’s not forget all the dishes that had to be 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 (yup, 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. Those mundane routines gave room for complex familial relationships to enfold, for the characters to peel off their layers… In any case, kudos to the cast (especially Jessica Raine in the title role) for timing all that dense dialogue with the rather frantic choreography.
Another reason to feel unsettled: Beatie and her mother (Linda Bassett) — both rubbed me the wrong way, at first: Beatie with her manic chirpiness & forced energy, Mrs Bryant with her insufferable high-pitched voice. Terrible 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 cathartic monologue was the highlight of the play.
[photos © Donmar]