Roots at Donmar Warehouse
One of three plays by Arnold Wesker centred on recurring invisible protagonist Ronnie, Roots is sandwiched between Chicken Soup with Barley (our introduction to Ronnie’s East End Jewish-Communist family) and I’m Talking about Jerusalem, which focuses on Ronnie’s sister Ada. Roots is the most popular and influential of this trilogy of autobiographical plays from the 1950s, and unfolds the uplifting story of Ronnie’s girlfriend Beatie Bryant, played at Donmar Warehouse by an incandescently superb Jessica Raine (of the BBC’s Call The Midwife).
Beatie returns to her Norfolk roots for two weeks to prepare her hardworking rural family for the arrival of her intellectual city boyfriend, Ronnie. She blows in “like a whirlwind”, delighting her family till she starts jumping on chairs parroting a frustrated Ronnie and sermonising with wide-eyed, new socialist talk. Pretty soon the cracks in this dysfunctional, loving family begin to widen and resentments bubble to the surface, in particular the chasm between Beatie and her mother, played to perfection by Linda Bassett (star of the BBC’s Lark Rise to Candleford).
The acting throughout is honest and exquisite with every subtle nuance shimmering from the stage and enveloping its hypnotised watchers. The narrative may be simple and the ending plainly obvious, but Roots is not a thin play – its lush textures overflow with intimacy and warmth. A continuous empathy builds to many mini peaks, crescendoing to ensure that after just over two hours, when our heroine finally drops the endless Ronnie quotes and finds her own unique voice, beguiling Beatie’s inner awakening is a deeply satisfying conclusion.
Some Norfolk colloquialisms may not be understood, but the struggles of an ever-changing society, a disenfranchised, conflicted youth, and Wesker’s own experiences (Beatie and Ronnie are based on himself and his once future wife Dusty) are clearly understood throughout this most absorbing play. Wesker deftly gets his messages across using a compassionate “cleaning cloth” approach, gently rubbing to expose the raw social and generational cracks, instead of hitting us repeatedly with a blatant cast-iron frying pan.
The two ten-minute breaks provided not only work perfectly for comfort, but also enhance the play’s three-act structure to its maximum effect. This sensational revival is still very relevant, and director James Macdonald’s choices are flawless. Well-deserved credit is due to all concerned.
Photos: Stephen Cummiskey
Roots is at the Donmar Warehouse until 30th November 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.