Review: Arnold Wesker’s Roots at the Donmar Warehouse

Roots Arnold Wesker donmar posterMany things can be said about James Mcdonald’s production of Arnold Wesker’s Roots : the language – while grounded and naturalistic – twists and turns like a snake, the performances have vigour and precision and beauty and the set showcases both the small details and the grandeur of the Donmar stage. But ultimately, despite all these pleasures, the production’s structural problems linger in the mind.

Some of these problems come with the play: Wesker is not in a hurry to tell his story. In fact, only one significant event occurs and it comes at the end of the play. None of this would matter if the characters’ interactions played out with energy but at almost three hours and with two intervals, the production loses momentum. Simple everyday moments play out at a leisurely pace, often in low lighting. Supremely atmospheric, I often had the feeling a monumental battle was raging underneath and I was missing it with my attention suffocated.

At the same time, the play’s central theme, a young woman from a working class background looking for her place in the world, plays strongly against our experiences. During the course of the story, confused action and rhetoric turn into tentative optimism and the contrast with our less innocent, more despairing times is palpable. It’s a shame these vibrations are often lost in the breezeless air of the production.

The actors ride the language and the quiet space with tremendous conviction, occasionally unlocking the treasures. Jessica Raine carries Beatie’s vitality and doubt with rare openness. Lydia Bassett’s Mrs Bryant is as still as she is explosive, often at the same breath. Ian Gelder’s Mr Bryant is a rough soul grinded harder by despair.

In the end, the biggest challenge was staying with the story. I could sense its pleasure but I couldn’t always find it.

4 responses to “Review: Arnold Wesker’s Roots at the Donmar Warehouse

    • Yes, two intervals didn’t seem to be in the initial plan as the printed programme only mentions one and a considerable shorter running time (the programme says 2 hours 40 minutes but it was closer to 3 hours). None of this helps the pace. And the difficult scene change is down to the fact they roll out a different floor in order to be able to spill water. It’s cumbersome all around and that affects the production.

  1. I found the whole production Slow and monotonous… the 4 and 5 star reviews that are coming in are a bit OTT.

    I found myself wondering silly things like if the Liver and Mash was decanted from an M&S ready meal, if they’d change up the menu every night or week and if they’d put that cake mix (Raine’s makes) in the oven after the show (seems a waste if they don’t all that method acting she goes through) LOL

  2. To say the play is too slow is to miss entirely one of the central points of an unsentimental play about working class life; if you had lived in rural England in the 1950s you would know what I mean. A tremendous production.

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