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From 1984 to Waiting for Godot, Shakespeare Theatre Company strives to share great theatre from around the world with D.C. audiences through visiting companies and productions. Next up for this season: Stephen Daldry’s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, originally produced at the National Theatre of Great Britain. Winner of multiple Tonys, Oliviers and Drama Desk Awards, this “defining production” of modern British theatre is making the first stop of its U.S. tour at Sidney Harman Hall.
But for those that aren’t familiar with Priestley’s classic play, some of Stephen Daldry’s famous works for TV, film and stage may ring a bell. Daldry’s resume not only includes 4 Olivier Awards and 10 Tony Awards—he also directed the film and musical adaptations of Billy Elliot, and he has directed or produced The Hours, The Reader, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the Netflix series The Crown. His other work for the stage includes directing Helen Mirren in Peter Morgan’s The Audience in 2013. Still, it was An Inspector Calls that put him on the map; according to The Telegraph, “Even if Daldry had never gone on to do anything else in his career, his name would still be remembered for this.”
As the young Artistic Director of London’s fringe Gate Theatre and later the Royal Court Theatre, Daldry was known for re-examining obscure classics with a contemporary take. When asked to direct the play in 1989 at the York Theatre Royal, he was initially unsure, saying “the play had become a staple of the amateur stage, the joke being that not only had everyone seen it, but most people had appeared in it.”
He changed his mind, though, after learning more about Priestley’s motivations for writing An Inspector Calls. Daldry explains, “For [Winston] Churchill, there was a single war aim: to defeat Germany. But Priestley, even in the darkest days, also insisted on asking what kind of country would be built afterwards. He’d fought in the trenches in the Great War and knew how badly the hopes of ‘a land fit for heroes’ had been betrayed. He was determined that this would not happen again.”
With a renewed interest in the play’s message of social responsibility, he took on the challenge. After the initial production at the York Theatre Royal, he decided to revisit An Inspector Calls again in 1992, after convincing the National Theatre to let him direct the play again on a grander scale. Instead of a stale period piece, a conventional Agatha Christie-style thriller, Daldry unearthed the expressionistic masterpiece in Priestley’s writing. No longer a naturalistic, well-made play, the action moved out of the Birlings’ parlor and into a post-war wasteland, with the cramped, dollhouse-like house sitting on stilts before dramatically collapsing onstage.
The production “made Daldry’s name as the most exciting director around” (The Telegraph). It has gone on to multiple revivals, West End runs, and national and international tours. It’s currently the longest running revival of a play in history. Daldry’s production “rescued An Inspector Calls, restoring it to its rightful place amongst the world classics,” producer Peter Wilson said at STC’s season announcement.
Even before its current revival, Daldry looked to the future and wondered how the public would react to the production in a rapidly changing world. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2009, he specifically imagined the response from Americans, where “after the nationalization of the banks, there are millions of protesters marching on the streets of Washington complaining that they have a socialist government.” How would Priestley’s message of social responsibility translate? How does it translate now, when the shape of American society and social and political accountability has changed irrevocably once again? Reflecting on current events at STC’s season announcement, Peter Wilson said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when this play hasn’t been relevant. And I don’t think, in my life, there’s ever been a time when it’s been more relevant.”
Washington audiences will finally have the chance to experience this groundbreaking production when it comes to Sidney Harman Hall, November 20-December 23.
An Inspector Calls is supported by the Harman Family Foundation in honor of the unforgettable Sidney Harman’s 100th birthday.
Photo of Stephen Daldry at the 63rd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2009 in New York City. Photo by Jemal.
Photos of An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse Theatre by Mark Douet.