When a theatre does like the Royal in Northampton, and revives a forgotten play, it becomes clear how stiflingly limited is so much of what’s seen on stage these days.
The Glass Cage is half-a-century old and almost entirely forgotten. If it was ever known. Its author J B Priestley was in his sixties and his 1955 The Scandalous Affair of Mr Kettle and Mrs Moon was eclipsed in its portrayal of discontent with a material society by the incandescence of the following year’s Look Back in Anger.
There’s anger too in Priestley’s 1957 drama, onstage now in Northampton (till 17 November 07). But the thrust then was for the young and modern and a near-pensioner’s play set in 1906 Toronto was way off the bill.
His target is the McBane family, both the upright, rich and socially respectable branch whose life is disturbed by the arrival of their disreputable brother Charlie’s grown-up children, and those young people themselves. Ultimately, it is they who are in the glass cage, all unawares of their confinement; a cage made of their anger and resentment.
This isn’t a great play. The exposition is laid-out obviously and social respectability is never more than a hypocritical veneer. The long second scene lays out the home characters’ failings one by one as they rather conveniently trip on in order from the prayer-meeting-come-soiree happening offstage. Yet, in the end, the secrets don’t lurk quite where they might originally seem.
Sound and lighting, on Jess Curtis’s atmospheric mix of a huge solid house and surrounding forest, create the sinister intentions of the three newcomers. And Laurie Sansom’s well-cast production shows how well Priestley’s dramaturgy responds to modern production techniques.
When liberation comes in the third scene, sound and music mix with physicality to create one of the clearest contrasts between tight-lipped order and swirling abandon since The Bacchae (Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa would form a third example). Adam Cork’s previously sinister soundscape, moulding aurally the threat the newcomers represent, here takes on new energy mirrored by Natasha Chivers’ lighting and the Georgina Lamb-choreographed movement.
It was over a decade since Priestley had produced a successful play – An Inspector Calls, seen in Moscow 1945 then re-opening London’s Old Vic Company’s programme after the Second World War. That was in tandem with Laurence Olivier directing and playing King Lear, and the first modern play mounted by the Old Vic (the nearest to a ‘national theatre’ Britain had).
Nothing since had come near that prestigious premiere, nor the string of West End successes Priestley had enjoyed from 1932 up to the War. There are clear links between the Inspector and the Cage, whose title could apply to the earlier drama.
In both there’s a wealthy, complacent family in the self-certain days (as Priestley always viewed them) of the early 20th-century. Mid-routine they are visited by a person, or people, who at first appear amenable but soon threaten the self-satisfied world. Secrets of shabby behaviour to someone else are opened-up from the past. In both, it tends to be the young members of the family who are open to re-assessing their way of life and adapting their values.
This isn’t to say the play’s a rewrite, or lacks its own identity. But it’s clearly from the mind of the same writer. Also influential could have been the experience Priestley and his third wife, archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, had jointly recorded in a 1955 book Journey Down A Rainbow. It’s a correspondence between the two as he visits the brashly materialistic southern USA while she explores the ancient art of Native Americans.
The ethnic contrast is reflected in the mother of Cage’s three arrivals, something also reflecting the Canadian cast for whom the play was written.
Which indicates the complex of thought and circumstance that can prompt a play (as John Osborne’s autobiography cast new light on Anger). Meanwhile, Northampton’s production is an enterprising success, which reinforces the idea inherent in Scotland, that a national theatre is not what goes on in one central building, but an identity built round a country, through its artists and audiences.