I briefly studied a few excerpts from Roots by Arnold Wesker when I was at sixth form college – it was chosen to give us an example of the ‘kitchen sink drama’. It forms part of a trilogy which also includes Chicken Soup with Barley (which I saw at the Royal Court a couple of years ago) and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. That was 14 years ago and this is the first time I’ve ever seen the play performed. It concerns Beatie, a girl in her early twenties who has left her family’s rural life in Norfolk to go and work in London, where she has met – and fallen in love with – Ronnie Kahn, a character in Chicken Soup With Barley. She has returned to Norfolk for a fortnight to visit family and to introduce Ronnie to them when he visits the following Saturday.
The play itself is delivered at a rather slow speed and I suspect this is deliberate; Beatie (Jessica Raine, Call The Midwife) has spent 3 years in the hustle and bustle of the big city, so her return to the family farm and their leisurely pace of life is quite a shock for her. Raine is bold and impetuous, her head filled with all the socialist ideas that Ronnie has told her about, constantly quoting him in a bid to impress them, but her family don’t care much for politics or revolutionary thinking (or culture or art or music – so instead they’re quietly bemused by her newfound obsessions). Her downtrodden sister Jenny (Lisa Ellis) is rather more resigned to her fate – she is a single mother and has married for convenience and no other reason. Jenny’s husband, Jimmy (Michael Jibson) is quietly dour and bland, but he earns a wage and keeps a roof over their head – that really is all he has going for him. He and Beatie are quite at odds with each other, she with her yearning for romance, he with his total contentment with its absence.
Their mother, Mrs Bryant (Linda Bassett, Calendar Girls) gives one of the most incredibly subtle performances with a very thick Norfolk accent; a woman who has never known any other life than the one she has, a neverending stream of housework and peeling vegetables – she is constantly busy doing something, but without any sort of urgency. She can’t even begin to grasp why Beatie is so disappointed in her lack of ambition for greater things or thirst for knowledge – she has her own little equilibrium and routine, so these things have never crossed her mind. Her husband Mr Bryant (Ian Gelder, Game of Thrones) is perpetually grumpy and miserly – he goes around switching off lights to save on the electricity bill with a Scrooge-like demeanour, refusing to let Beatie use the oven to bake a cake.
But it is the final scene which provides the great drama of the play; the whole family have gathered including the filthy-minded Frank (Carl Prekopp) and his condescending wife Pearl (Emma Stansfield) to meet the infamous Ronnie. There is a gargantuan trifle on the table and the anxious Beatie has made everyone promise to be on their best behaviour and make a good impression. The small talk becomes ever more strained as we see that this is a family who are actually quite happy without conversation – their lives are so full of getting by and making do that communication is quite a rarity. They wait and they wait. And they wait. All are clearly desperate to dig into the massive teatime spread, but they are not without manners, so they wait. Until finally a letter arrives. I was expecting rather more crippling embarrassment on the part of Beatie, but perhaps again this is deliberately done to keep the subtlety. She finally makes her feelings known to all in a choked emotional display of disappointment. With her family, her upbringing, her education and their indifference to the wider world and everything it has to offer.
There is something rather apt about this play given that this week, Julian Fellowes publicly admitted that he adapted the language of his forthcoming film Romeo and Juliet “to make it more accessible.” He went on to say: “to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship to understand the language…… I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge.” But this is precisely what Beatie is driving at in her final speech – that the well educated think that those lower down the scale need to have things dumbed down for them and that her family are just as entitled to culture as anyone else, but because they accept what they’re given without question, that’s all they’ll ever get. I still have my script, so here are some of Beatie’s final words:
“If they want slop songs and film idols we’ll give ’em that then. If they want the third rate, blust! We’ll give ’em that then. Anything’s good enough for them ‘cos they don’t ask for no more! The whole stinkin’ commercial world insults us and we don’t care a damn. Well, Ronnie’s right – it’s our own bloody fault. We want the third rate we got it! We got it! We got it!”
Roots is at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, LONDON, WC2H 9LX until Saturday 30th November 2013. Tickets available from http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/