REVIEW: Roots, Donmar Warehouse ✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 23rd July 2014

Jessica Raine and Linda Bassett in Roots. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
Jessica Raine and Linda Bassett in Roots. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Donmar Theatre
2 October 2013
4 Stars

There are many remarkable things about James Macdonald’s production of Arnold Wesker’s Roots, currently playing at the Donmar Theatre, but perhaps the most remarkable is that Wesker could have had such strong feelings about the dumbing-down of culture at the time he wrote the play – 1959.

His argument is eloquent and undeniable, and truer now than it was then: essentially it boils down to the notion that if something precious is transformed into something common and accessible so that it is easily available to everyone, then no one, or at least fewer and fewer, will ever invest the energy into understanding the precious and will settle for the common, for the easily accessed. Never mind the quality, can you get it easily?

In this play, Wesker examines a number of big issues: the failure of socialism, the destruction of the working classes in England, the inter-generational incomprehension and bitterness that comes from changing times and the way that men routinely underestimate women. But, in examining those issues, Wesker uses a form which requires attention for dividends to be paid.

The first Act is tough going: bleak, almost hopeless. The second is more beguiling as the formidable matriarch of the clan is introduced, then the patriarch and the shape of the family takes on clearer definition. Lines are drawn and positions taken. Then, in Act Three, the whole family gathers to meet the beau of the youngest daughter and, unsurprisingly, the beau turns out to be a rotter and it appears the daughter is put in her place. And then something quite remarkable happens.

This is a play which simply cannot work without sensational performances from the central character, Beatie, and the Mother and, here, both Jessica Raine and Linda Basset are quite, quite wonderful. Raine has perhaps the easier task: Beatie is the rebellious, spirited but somewhat dazzled convert to the socialist new-thinking ways of her lover Ronnie, but she seems not to really understand the reasons for or the effect of Ronnie’s teachings on herself or her family. Raine is beautiful in every way – radiant really. She brings joy and charm to everything, every aspect of the character, even when Beatie is being, well, a complete bitch.

Bassett is fabulous as the dry, compelling and tough Mother – she makes the mundane routine of kitchen sink activity compelling, stoic and unsentimental. And she is funny. In the quite astonishing moment when she stands up to her pretentious Beattie, forces her daughter to see her family for who and what they are, she gives a performance of real insight and depth. And through that experience, Beattie is transformed.

These are two of the best performances by an actress to be found on the London stage this year.

But, actually, all of the cast excels, there really is not a dud among them. The set is meticulous and detailed and compellingly depressive – full marks to Hildegard Bechtler’s evocative set. This is difficult theatre to watch – but it is engaging and ultimately life affirming. And quite splendid.

The Donmar under Josie Rourke has never been better.

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