Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed 1992 production of An Inspector Calls at the National Theatre was credited with reinvigorating J B Priestley’s play and making it relevant for a modern-day audience. The image of the mysterious Inspector half-lit by a streetlamp became an emblem of the play, appearing on programmes and posters for productions all over the UK and abroad.
Shown here is the programme cover from Daldry’s 1993 production at the Aldwych Theatre, which starred Kenneth Cranham as the Inspector, and a review of the production for The Guardian by the critic Michael Billington. Following the play’s landmark revival at the National Theatre, Daldry’s production transferred to the Aldwych in 1993. After that, for more than two decades, the production played at number of a West End theatres – and toured the world – making it the longest running revival of a play in history. In November 2016, Daldry’s production returned again to London’s West End.
What made Stephen Daldry’s production so special?
Daldry’s production was a radical departure from conventional stagings of the play which had prevailed for decades. Designer Ian MacNeil substituted the fusty suburban drawing room set and plodding dialogue of earlier productions with a boldly non-naturalistic set and dynamic staging. Drawing on the minimalism of the Moscow premiere, the production blew critics and audiences away. In his review, titled ‘Sermon for a hollow society’, Billington called the production ‘An urgent expressionistic nightmare’.
Priestley always intended his play to be staged in a way which would make the most of its symbolism. Visually stunning, MacNeil’s set was a metaphor for Priestley’s dramatic process whereby each member of the Birling family, and Gerald Croft, are implicated in Eva Smith’s death. Billington describes how MacNeil created the Birlings’ Edwardian home ‘like a doll’s house on stilts marooned in a desolate cobbled landscape’. When the hinged walls of the house open up, ‘it is as if a world of bourgeois security is being exposed to the fierce light of truth’. One by one the Inspector draws each of the characters down into the street to be questioned, building to a shocking finale in which the Birlings crawl among the rubble of their collapsed house as the Inspector delivers his message: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are all responsible for each other’.
Why is An Inspector Calls relevant to audiences past and present?
Daldry and MacNeil realised that An Inspector Calls is ‘a timeless symbolic sermon about social conscience’, argues Billington. Set in 1912, the play was written at the end of the Second World War, and intended by Priestley as a warning to people not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Daldry’s 1992 production depicts the 1912 world of the Birlings, while evoking the era just after the Second World War when audiences first saw the play.
Daldry brings the play firmly into the present day at the end when Inspector Goole delivers his final speech directly to the audience. Goole’s message, that we are all responsible for each other, was as resonant for a 1992 audience as it had been in 1945/46. Quoted in the programme for this production were Margaret Thatcher’s infamous words, ‘there is no such thing as society’. As Billington points out, ‘everything in the production is designed to expose this flagrant lie’.
Priestley’s play is both timely and timeless. Its exposure of hypocrisy and inequality is as relevant today as it could ever be.