Many 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.