sun 09/08/2020

Preview: Arnold Wesker's Roots | reviews, news & interviews

Preview: Arnold Wesker's Roots

Preview: Arnold Wesker's Roots

The Donmar Warehouse is reviving a late Fifties classic about working-class awakening

Finding her voice: Jessica Raine as Beatie in rehearsal for 'Roots' at the Donmar

Arnold Wesker has a theory that plays require a certain DNA to endure. When thoughts turn to the 1950s and the revolution in British theatre which allowed ordinary working-class life up onto the stage, the name which always comes up is John Osborne. And yet the game-changing Look Back in Anger now looks like a bloated and tiresome rant. Wesker’s work has stood the test of time far more robustly.

Wesker’s plays from the late Fifties continue to be revived – most recently in 2011 The Kitchen at the National and Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court. Those plays were first performed in 1957 and 1958. It’s now the turn of Wesker’s third play, from 1959, which has been brought back into the light by the Donmar Warehouse.

Roots is the second part of a trilogy, sandwiched between Chicken Soup with Barley and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. Much of Wesker's work is autobiographical - "my power of invention is slight," he once wrote - and indeed his greatest success was with Chips with Everything, his all but documentary portrait of National Service. But in Roots there was an early indication that the playwright was curious about others’ roots as much as his own.

The play is set not in Wesker’s familiar milieu of Jewish East London, but rural Norfolk. Beatie Bryant, a young working-class daughter of farm labourers, returns home after a trip to London. She is full of tales of a new boyfriend who (though we never meet him) happens to be Ronnie, the Jewish East Ender who features in Chicken Soup with Barley. It turns out that all her fresh opinions, which are bewildering to her uneducated family, are more his than hers, and she finds her voice – spectacularly – only as the result of a cataclysm later on in the play.

The play was commissioned by Tony Richardson, the assistant to George Devine at the English Stage Company. Wesker was paid £25. When he submitted it was rejected citing structural flaws. Wesker and his director John Dexter took it to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, whence it returned in to the Court and went on to the West End. It’s back there again under the direction of James Macdonald, with Jessica Raine, star of Call the Midwife, as the fiery young Beatie. If a play about self-improvement reflected the movement of tectonic plates in British post-war society, Roots has all too much applicability to contemporary Britain in which social mobility seems have once more to have ground to a halt. Good DNA. 

In Roots there was an early indication that the playwright was curious about others’ roots as much as his own

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