The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Autumn 2013
Arnold Wesker's Roots is a slow-burn of a play, taking its time introducing us to a particular world and set of characters while building to a coup de theatre made entirely of words, a surprise ending of transcendent beauty and wonder that lifts your spirits beyond anything you could have anticipated.
Or at least that's what's supposed to happen.
For some perverse reason director James MacDonald deliberately and methodically sabotages that ending, undercutting its positive message and ending the play on a 'Who cares?' negative note.
To explain that, I'm going to have to issue a Spoiler Alert. I'm going to describe what's supposed to happen, in the play and to the audience, my justification being that you couldn't know it from just seeing this production.
Roots is the story of Beatie Bryant, Norfolk farm girl who went to London and fell in love with, and under the spell of, Jewish socialist intellectual Ronnie.
On a visit home she prefaces almost everything she says with 'Ronnie says' or 'Ronnie thinks', accepting him as the authority on everything from social philosophy to the proper recipe for sponge cake, and surprised and frustrated that the others don't share her admiration, their responses ranging from indifference to hostility.
Eventually – and if you want, you can stop reading here and skip to the line beginning 'Up to that point' – Beattie is forced to admit that she doesn't really understand any of what she's been saying, and has just been parroting Ronnie uncomprehendingly.
But then – and here is the moment – in the process of trying to verbalise her confession, she discovers for the first time her own thoughts and her own voice.
Theatrically it's extraordinary, because just at the moment that you sense that something seems to have gone wrong with the writing and this girl shouldn't be capable of such eloquence, she does as well, and her cry of joy, 'D'you hear that? D'you hear it?. . . I'm talking. . . . It's happened. I'm beginning!', is heart-stopping and heart-lifting.
And director MacDonald breaks the speech up so its eloquence isn't allowed to develop, pushes the actress to the side of the stage, and directs our focus to the others as they ignore her and get on with their dinners, their hubbub almost drowning her out.
I can only guess that MacDonald is deliberately fighting the text, determined to replace Wesker's upbeat ending with a darker one, and I can only say that he is very, very wrong.
Up to that point the play was chugging along nicely, if a bit slowly. Wesker devotes much of the first two acts to the day-in-the-life minutia of farm living, just as his play The Kitchen is filled with the mechanics of running a restaurant, and MacDonald and his cast do draw us into a world of unending small chores, making meals for labouring men, and marking the hours by noting every passing bus.
A significant part of Wesker's charitable vision is that Beattie's family may be small of soul and narrow of mind, more capable of gratuitous cruelty than any expression of love, but that there is something heroic in their plodding through their constricted lives.
As Beattie Jessica Raine captures the bright-eyed energy of a girl in love with a man and a world she would never have imagined within her reach, along with the occasional glimpse of suppressed desperation as she fights against the realisation that she literally doesn't know what she's talking about.
Linda Bassett embodies the solid and stolid strength of Beattie's mother and Lisa Ellis the slightly less hardened humanity of her sister, retaining our sympathy even as they become smaller and crueller in our eyes.