This article discusses suicide. Please refer to the end of the article for resources on campus.

As the lights dimmed, bomb sirens roared and fog emerged in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall on Nov. 26; the audience was transported to 1912 England. Coupling comedy with death and opulence with impoverishment, director Stephen Daldry’s interpretation of J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” succeeds in its crippling of classist society and its denunciation of the capitalistic conscience.

Given Daldry’s experience in directing the Priestley classic — he first directed it in 1992 and has done so again several times — the U.S. tour of “An Inspector Calls” appears primed for equal success. The play follows the shattering of the wealthy Birling family’s mental framework. At the beginning of the play, the family is celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling, played by Lianne Harvey, to Andrew Macklin’s Gerald Croft, the heir to a prosperous factory. Rather than deliver the dialogue directly onstage, however, the family speaks of self-reliance and wedding garments from their cushy, Victorian mansion lofted above the stage; the audience is privy to their conversations but prevented from an intimate acquaintance with the Birlings’ home.

This acquaintance is only provided when Inspector Goole, played by Scottish actor Liam Brennan, pays the Birlings a visit to question them about Eva Smith, a young pregnant woman who committed suicide earlier that evening. Over the course of the show, the extent of each character’s relationship to Eva comes to light, and each character must confront the effects of their greed and destructive opulence.

As the mysterious Goole, Liam Brennan steals the spotlight — as well as the Birlings’ false sense of pride. Although his Scottish accent and the theater’s set-up occasionally obscured the audience’s ability to catch his lines, he shined in his inspection of the Birlings’ morality. The inspector conveyed a plausible concern for Eva Smith and the conditions that led her to kill herself.

Lianne Harvey and Hamish Riddle, who also shine in their roles as Sheila and Eric Birling, portray two siblings who seem to know little about one another. The duo consistently expresses the most guilt of the bunch, and both ultimately regret their cruel treatment of Eva. Together, Harvey and Riddle appear convincingly consumed by grief, offering to the audience the hope that perhaps self-reflection can lead to a change in habits.

At its core, Priestley’s play criticizes the rigid class divides and frivolous wealth associated with 20th-century capitalism and the British prewar mindset. Set in April 1912, the high society the Birlings enjoy reaps the benefits of capitalism and industrialization, a stark contrast to the poverty that also marked industrial Britain. 

SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY | Through the juxtaposition of classes in industrial England and the collapse of the Birling family’s facade lifestyle, J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” provides audiences with a thought-provoking experience. 

Ian MacNeil’s set design is essential in portraying this juxtaposition. In relation to the rest of the stage, the house itself is enormous, enforcing the characters’ narrow worldviews. Their bourgeois bubble is ornately decorated with British antiques, green and yellow floral wallpaper, and an elaborate chandelier.

Yet the world the Birlings encounter outside their front door paints a drastically different picture. Potholes litter the cobblestone streets, a hazy smog occupies the background, and ghostlike faces and dirty children linger in the corners. The more time the Birlings spend outside their home, the more the unfortunate consequences of their selfishness confront them.

As a meticulous stage director, Daldry cleverly finds openings for symbolism within the text. When Sheila realizes that her husband-to-be is not as saintly as he seems, she stumbles into a pothole and dirties her pristine white ball gown, representing the muddling of her moral compass. 

Additionally, the explosive and spontaneous destruction of the Birlings’ home onstage embodies Priestley’s detest of capitalism. As the mansion’s supports snap and the walls unfold, the Birlings’ most valuable possessions fall into a giant sinkhole, itself a symbol of the hole Goole left in the characters’ consciences.

The success of “An Inspector Calls” lies in its overt disruption of comfortability. The Birlings begin the show contently ignorant and excessively wealthy, but Goole’s interrogation disrupts their comfortable lifestyle. Equal parts hilarious, contemplative and mysterious, this British whodunit was worth the trip across the pond.  

To access mental health resources, reach out to Counseling and Psychiatric Services at 202-687-6985, or for after-hours emergencies, call 202-444-7243 and ask to speak to the on-call clinician. You can also reach out to Health Education Services at 202-687-8949. Both of these resources are confidential.

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