The Inspector Talks: A Conversation with Actor Liam Brennan

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday March 21, 2019

Stephen Daldry's 1992 production of "An Inspector Calls" is said to be the longest running revival of a play in history, seen by over 3 million theatergoers worldwide. After turning heads with its radical staging, which ran in both the West End (an Olivier Award for Best Revival) and Broadway (a Tony Award for Best Revival), it has returned with six major tours both in England and throughout the world in the ensuing years. The latest one brings it to Boston's Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre under the sponsorship of ArtsEmerson through March 24. After that, it returns to England for additional dates.

In J.P. Priestley's drama, a mysterious police inspector arrives at the residence of the Birling family. The time is 1912, but in Daldry's rethinking, the posh world of the Birlings is reduced to a small, dollhouse-like dining room that sits precariously on stilts with the family members crowded inside it. Around them is a desolate, war-torn landscape that suggests London under the Blitz. The interloper — Inspector Goole — doesn't so much join them in the dining room, but bring them out onto the dark landscape where he asks them questions (interrogating them actually) as to each family member's relationship with a young woman who had poisoned herself hours before.

Actor Liam Brennan has been "An Inspector Calls" over three of its most recent iterations: a British national tour in 2015, a West End run the following year and the current Anglo-American one that returns for additional dates in Britain after leaving Boston. That the Scottish actor plays the role with his native accent adds another deal of "otherness" to his brusque, remote character, whose invasion of the Birling household may or may not be real. But if Goole is some sort of avenging force from beyond, it can't be found in his no-nonsense performance, which takes the audience on a methodical inquiry into each family member's involvement with the dead woman.

Brennan — an esteemed Shakespearean actor who most recently appeared with Mark Rylance in the Rylance/Stephen Fry double bill of "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night" in London and New York, talked about Inspector Goole and his compelling presence in Priestley's play.

Who is the inspector?

EDGE: Had you seen the production back in the 1990s?

Liam Brennan: No. I hadn't. I was aware of it. I had stumbled upon the play as a teenager and was aware of the National Theatre production, but never had seen it until I became involved in the production.

EDGE: Were you surprised by the radical approach taken to it?

Liam Brennan: I was a bit. I had heard it was unusual. I heard it was full of surprises, but didn't know what that meant. We didn't meet the set until a week before we opened initially, and now, of course, it is all very familiar, but hopefully, when people see it they will see it and be inclined to the fact that it is very unusual and there are some nice surprises for them there.

EDGE: How do you approach the part?

Liam Brennan: I think the way I approach any part. But I remember when I first started, I was tying myself in knots trying to find out who and what the inspector is. Then I eventually decided that since the writer fundamentally doesn't solve the mystery - he leaves it quite open and the audience leaves with very different ideas as to just who he is - I decided to put that aside and play the role as truthfully as I can. For example, if any actor playing the part decides he is some kind of a ghost, I don't know what you do about that because what is good ghost acting? It is a bit of a blind alley. It was for me. So I am just trying to be as honest and truthful with it as I can and stand there and deliver it, I hope.


EDGE: Priestley wrote that he wanted the character to have the impression of massiveness, solidity, and purposefulness. Did you read those notes by him and incorporate them in your work?

Liam Brennan: I think that is along the lines. He is very firm with the family. He doesn't take any nonsense. He doesn't take any prisoners. I think that is implicit in the lines. I think you can argue that he is harder on some of the family members than the others. I think his scene with the mother is a bit of a battle royal. But I think with the son Eric, there is something gentle going on, which is interesting. That is kind of in the lines of what Priestley was looking for.

EDGE: You play the role with your Scottish accent. Is that for any particular reason?

Liam Brennan: Not really. It was never mentioned, and I could do it in standard English or some other kind of English regional accent. But it was never mentioned. I was never asked to do anything different. As you know, this production has been resurrected nearly every four years since the 1990s and over that time there have been three or four Scottish actors in the role. I think it is quite helpful in two ways: anything that adds to the inspector's state of "otherness" is a good thing. Obviously, the family is all English. And I also think there is a cultural tradition in the UK of the - I don't mean to say cliché - but I think there is a cultural tradition of a no-nonsense Scot being in charge of a police investigation. I think it adds to my character.

Left to the imagination

EDGE: You mentioned "otherness." What do you think of the Inspector being a supernatural character?

Liam Brennan: I suppose he kind of is and has to be to some extent, but I think that because Priestley doesn't define that for us, to what degree that is true is up to the audience. I don't know. All I can do as an actor is walk on the stage and say the lines as truthfully as I can. I think that the other side of things is really in the imagination of the audience. I can't imagine anything worse than someone trying to suggest to the audience that they are some supernatural being unless there are lines that help substantiate that. But there aren't any as far as I can see. No one asks him where he comes from. No one asks him where he has just been. No one asks him where he's going to. He's very much just present for that period of time in that situation.

EDGE: What is Priestley saying in his play? And why is still so relevant?

Liam Brennan: I guess he's saying, be careful how we treat each other. I think he says in the final speech that we don't live alone, we are members of one society, we are responsible for each other, and I hope that notions of kindness and understanding will never go out of fashion. I think that is what he is trying to get us to think about. But it is a message conveyed in a really good thriller - a nice, exciting and slightly mysterious night in the theater. I think that message is wrapped up in a great story and a great one-hour-and-45 minute entertainment.

Any negative response?

EDGE: Since this revival opened, it has received uniformly terrific reviews and some major awards. So it was funny to come across a very negative review, this of the television adaptation taken from this production. It was in the Daily Spectator, a conservative British publication, and it called it "poisonous, revisionist propaganda," and reviled those who like for its socialist politics. "It confirms everything they think they know about the world: rich people bad, heartless, oppressive; poor people the long-suffering and saintly salt of the earth." Just curious, you've been with the play for quite some time, have you experienced any conservative backlash?

Liam Brennan: Not that I know of or I have heard. No one has heckled those lines in the final speech. You know, it is not a realistic piece - it is all very convenient that every member of the family has come in contact and have treated this young woman badly. It is a play. It is not supposed to be gritty realism. But I am not aware of any negative comments like that in any of the reviews we have had, nor have I spoken to anyone that felt that way. But I am sure there are. It is just that no one has conveyed that to me. I think a lot of people, especially in England, know of the play and what the inspector is going at. It probably isn't as true in the States, but I certainly haven't come up against any of that. But I am sure there are people that feel that way and they're entitled to their view.

EDGE: In your final speech, you admonish the family. Are you speaking to the audience as well?

ILiam Brennan: In this production I speaking solely to the audience. We do this device where I come to the front of the forestage and I speak directly to the audience. Not in any hectoring way. I am trying to do it in a conversationally, very quietly. I am trying to make it up as I go along. But, yeah, it is directly to the audience, which is nice to do. I know myself I enjoy that if I am an audience member. For example, in a Shakespeare soliloquy when you feel an actor speaking directly to you. So that is the way we do the final speech. The family is on stage and they hear it, but the Inspector is choosing in the moment to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the witnesses, if you like, of the play.

"An Inspector Calls" continues through March 24 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the ArtsEmerson website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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