Young and lively Beatie has come from London to visit her Norfolk farm-working family. Beatie’s boyfriend Ronnie is expected in a week and the young woman can’t help but wax lyrical about his socialist beliefs and his insistence on her continuous quest for self-improvement. It appears that Ronnie likes to lecture Beatie quite a lot and she, in turn, copying her hero, stands on chairs, preaching to her family the opinions of her boyfriend.
Roots, which was first staged in 1959, is the middle play in Arnold Wesker’s socio-political working class trilogy, which includes Chicken Soup with Barley (revived at the Royal Court two years ago) and I’m Talking about Jerusalem. There is no doubt that the setting in Roots is based in part on Wesker’s own life. After all, Ronnie is Jewish and works in a hotel kitchen as did Wesker who worked at the Bell Hotel in Norwich. Though there is a Kitchen sink centre-stage in the first two acts, the play cannot quite be called kitchen sink drama as the expected “angry young man” Ronnie never makes an appearance. The play does, however, explore the vast chasm between political ideology and grim reality.
The play is set in the women’s place of work, the kitchen. We are quickly immersed into the slow repetitive world of village gossip, manual labour and tedious housework. The local bus-runs and the postman’s regular schedule announce each hour like clockwork. To say there is not much going on is an understatement. Wesker wants us to feel the tediousness of the lives of these farming women and the literally backbreaking nature of the men’s work. As Beatie, perfectly played by (Jessica Raine), meets up with her sister (Lisa Ellis) and down-to-earth mother (Linda Bassett) there is much potato peeling, dish drying and clothes-folding going on. This is a world in which a young girl visiting her mother brings in her suitcase an apron for chores. No wonder Beatie’s family isn’t interested in her ideals and aspirations for Britain’s working class, their minds are numbed by drudgery.
Beatie tries to galvanise her mother and family into understanding how they should break free from their working-class cage but the conflicts never materialise due to their impassivity and lack of emotional engagement. It doesn’t help that Beatie herself doesn’t seem to understand what Ronnie means about the detrimental impact of consumerism on the masses. We are made to understand that these people endure silently and individually. Interestingly, Wesker chose to convey a less than flattering picture of Ronnie as a bullying pseudo-intellectual with an inflated sense of self. As we wait for Ronnie to show up for tea, the climactic dinner scene delivers a brutal humiliation followed by a final redemption for Beatie.
I cannot imagine how the director, James Macdonald, could have improved on this production. The acting was superb and the sets by Hildegard Bechtler, brought back to life 1950s kitchens with a meticulous attention to detail. The lighting of a gas lamp was particularly noteworthy. While Ian Dickinson’s sound effects added much to the rural illusion.
However, and while it is certain that the play did speak to the class malaise of that time, the slow pace is likely to prove more difficult for modern audiences. Some critics called the play hypnotic and there were, indeed, many memorable and thoughtful moments but the writer’s desire to show us the tedious and repetitive nature of the working class life unavoidably led us to see the play as a little tedious as well. The Donmar ’s small audience were obviously feeling this on the night I attended as seats were increasingly vacated following the two intervals of a two hours and forty minutes production.